The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How online harassment turned into real threats for my family in Canada

Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Nora Loreto is a Canadian freelance writer and author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.”

QUEBEC — Several weeks ago, I came home to find a business card jammed into my door frame. It was from Quebec’s department of child protection services, and it instructed me to call immediately. I called, left a message and sat in silence as my body froze. A wave of pure fear went through me as I processed what was happening.

I live in Canada and frequently write about race, white supremacy and politics. In April, when an accident took the lives of 16 people from the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, I reacted first with horror, then with sadness. A record $15 million was raised to assist the families cope with the tragedy, and I questioned why we’re more generous when the victims are mostly young, white men. In 2012, a bus accident in which 11 people were killed, the victims, mostly migrant workers, struggled to raise a tiny fraction of that amount.

The tweets went viral, and the message was quickly distorted to make me look like a monster. I received so many messages, I couldn’t log into Facebook. My friends and family members received messages, too.

Aside from hundreds of credible threats (“Dear Nora: I’m staring at your driveway waiting for you to pull in”), I also received phone calls nonstop. People who wanted me jobless contacted anyone who they could see had hired me in the past few years.

Six months later, I still receive threats online. Most of the harassment consists of insults or trolling. From time to time, I’ll wake up to messages from accounts that tell me I deserve some kind of misfortune or violence.

Online threats are being used to silence and hurt progressive voices online. When Black Lives Matter-Toronto emerged, right-wing outlets did their best to marshal harassment toward the group’s leadership in an effort to silence and scare them. Even when BLMTO activists are recognized for their work, such as forcing the police Special Investigations Unit to be more transparent, columnists use their platforms to call these activists racist. Every time a column like this is written, it creates another torrent of online abuse.

These campaigns often have real-life consequences. Masuma Khan, a student activist from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, faced academic discipline for a Facebook post about Canada 150th celebrations that read: “Be proud of this country? For what, over 400 years of genocide? #unlearn150, #whitefragilitycankissmya– [and] #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis.” Khan was inundated by social media harassment. Again, right-wing outlets made hay out of her case. Dalhousie dropped the investigation about three months later.

Social services called me back to set up a meeting to discuss an anonymous complaint. We spent the next 14 hours tidying the house, throwing out mystery containers from the fridge and making awkward chatter. We hugged the kids a lot. The next morning, I took the kids to day care and said goodbye, believing that there was a chance that I wouldn’t be the one picking them up at the end of the day.

My partner and I suspected the child services call was politically motivated. The investigator came to our apartment. We all sat around our dining room table. The sun glistened off the hardwood floor, eviscerating shadows. She told us in French the complaint: Our apartment was “insalubre,” in a state that is dangerously unhealthy. It was clearly a malicious and vexatious complaint. The apartment was clean.

The case was closed instantly. We felt like a million bucks. Then, the reality of the situation set in: Someone used this to silence us at best, and take our kids from us, at worst.

There is a long history of using child protective services to silence mothers, destroy families and cause harm. Amy England was a fiery and progressive new councilor in Oshawa, Ontario, when one of her opponents called the Children’s Aid Society on her. Her crime: endangering her eight-week-old by bringing her to council chambers to be breast-fed. Shaun King, a high-profile American activist, detailed his own child services nightmare when someone arrived to investigate a complaint against him and his wife.

Canada has a crisis of freedom of speech, but rather than the police and politicians inflicting violence, it’s an online army of trolls. They’re fueled by specific groups on Reddit, international white supremacy websites such as Daily Stormer, and right-wing personalities. Defending free speech requires that we understand how these forces operate, how things are made to go viral and who benefits from the fallout. If we can’t adequately map who comprises the horde, perhaps what we need is a map of who the horde chooses to attack, and why.

I know my complainant was targeting me because of my politics. Maybe it was the person who called me two days before the complaint was made, screaming that I must remove a political sign from my window. Maybe it was one of the dozens of trolls who threatened me specifically by saying they would call child protective services. While I don’t need to know, I understand deeply the risks that we put ourselves in when we fight for justice. And, I understand even more, the need for us, collectively, to never let any single individual who sticks out their neck for their community, feel the weight of the state come down on them.

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