— ABC News (@abcnews) June 18, 2016
Last year, Olivia Melville discovered someone had taken a screenshot of her Tinder profile and posted it to Facebook with the caption, “stay classy, ladies.”
The image — which included her name, photo and a Drake lyric — went viral. In a separate post, the comments turned nasty.
Her friend Paloma Brierley Newton jumped in to defend Melville when Zane Alchin, a 25-year-old Sydney man, wrote more than 50 comments — many of them explicit, derogatory and threatening.
“I’d rape you if you were better looking,” read one comment, the Guardian reported. Alchin also wrote about raping feminists and that women “deserve to be taken back to the 50s [where] you’ll learn to know your role and shut your damn mouth.”
Melville, 25, said that “seeing my photo everywhere was probably the most terrifying experience,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported. “Seeing my face consistently being shared on Facebook … It was in the news everywhere as like, ‘Oh, there’s the Drake Tinder girl.'”
The incident didn’t end with Alchin’s suspension by a social media platform. Newton reported the comments to police, and Alchin may now see jail time. Advocates against online harassment are heralding this case as a landmark in the fight against such abuse.
On Monday, Alchin pleaded guilty in an Australian court to using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offense. The charge carries a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment.
Alchin told police he was trolling “a group of feminists that were harassing me and my friends,” that he didn’t know it was a criminal act and that he was remorseful, the Guardian reported. After his arrest, he told authorities he was drunk while he wrote the comments.
“This result demonstrates that there is a precedent in Australian law that says this behavior is unacceptable,” reads a statement posted this week from Sexual Violence Won’t Be Silenced, a group founded by Newton. “It means that harassing women online is not only legally reprehensible, but socially and morally as well. Our victory today sends a message to all women that they don’t have to put up with harassment online; that there are steps and channels they can take, and that Australian law is on their side.”
The story also carries similar echoes to a 2014 incident in the United Kingdom. Peter Nunn was sentenced by a British judge to 18 weeks in prison after he tweeted and retweeted rape threats and other vulgarities aimed at a female politician.
Alchin’s case has received massive attention in Australia, where it was considered a test of how authorities and federal law would treat online harassment directed toward women. The particular statute to which he pleaded guilty, written decades ago, has mostly been used for cases involving phone calls or text messages, according to the BBC.
While the legal treatment of online harassment differs from country to country, such incidents point to a growing and broader awareness among the public and law enforcement of taking online threats seriously, said Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”
“What these cases are helping us understand is the behavior itself is illegal,” Citron said. “So often, 10 years ago, the response was, ‘It’s the Wild West. Get over yourself. Ignore it.’ … We’ve come to understand these network tools are not in other places; it’s not just one’s and zero’s. It’s not any other life. It’s your real life, it’s terrifying, and it can get terrorizing.”
These high-profile incidents also cast light on the issue of online harassment of women in general. In the United States, gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian received rape and death threats through email, Twitter and comments on her videos, prompting her to call police and flee from her home.
Women are especially vulnerable to such harassment. The Guardian undertook a study this year, analyzing the 70 million comments left on its website since 2006. They “discovered that of the 10 most abused writers, eight are women, and the two men are black.”
Globally, about three-fourths of women online “have been exposed to some form of cyber violence,” according to a 2015 report by the United Nations Broadband Commission. Women between 18 and 24 are most likely to be stalked or sexually harassed, according to the report, and one in five women online live in countries where such online abuse “is extremely unlikely to be punished.” The U.N. group urged governments and companies to find solutions.
“Online violence has subverted the original positive promise of the Internet’s freedoms and in too many circumstances has made it a chilling space that permits anonymous cruelty and facilitates harmful acts towards women and girls,” U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a statement. “We want to reclaim and expand the opportunities it offers. That means recognizing the scale and depth of the damage being done — and taking strong, concerted steps to call it — and stop it. Abuse online is still abuse, with potency and very real consequences.”
Legal treatment of the British Twitter or Australian Facebook cases would probably differ in the United States, where there’s a much higher standard for what’s considered threatening speech. In about half of U.S. states, “stalking and harassment is limited to one-to-one communication, directly communicated to the victim,” Citron said.
While there is a federal cyber-stalking statute, Citron said, “only federal law enforcement can enforce it. They have limited resources, and often the response to victims when they go to federal law enforcement is we just don’t have the bandwidth for this.”
But Citron notes a movement toward federal officials training local and state law enforcement to investigate online harassment so they can tackle more of these cases. Also, she said, “we need state lawmakers need to update laws, written in the ’90s, that made sense because we only had email.”
As to what’s an adequate punishment for this kind of abuse, that’s an ongoing conversation, Citron said. “Sometimes you have sentences that are too long, and then there’s a backlash.”
And then there are sentences that are deemed too light, such as in the Stanford sexual assault case, that are roundly criticized.
Alchin, the Syndey man, will be sentenced next month. Melville told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she “didn’t know whether jail or community service would be appropriate,” the outlet reported. She said she wants the sentence “to be a reason for people to understand and know what’s happening.”
She continued: “I want him to be sorry and understand the weight this whole thing has had on myself, and Paloma and a lot of our friends, and a lot of other people who have had experiences as well.”