Samantha* was in her mid-teens when she first met her boyfriend. She quickly fell in love and into her first relationship.
By Tessa Parker
“It was so lovey-dovey it was almost fake.. It felt like I was on a TV show all the time.”
Samantha tells me this as we sit in her backyard. It’s been two years since this relationship started but it’s uncomfortable for her to talk about.
Samantha isn’t her real name. She doesn’t want her real name published, because the man who repeatedly told her how much he loved her, how amazing she was in all those TV moments, was also her abuser.
Like many violent relationships, Samantha’s abuse didn’t just exist in person, but also online.
“It almost started from the first date we went on, when he said 'what’s your number, what's your number, what’s your mum’s number?'"
"He had two numbers he would call me from. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. He downloaded Kick at one point, trying to get to me on Kick as well, Viber, every possible messaging app that I could be reached on he had and was trying to message me.
"It was really intense and I still thought 'oh maybe he just cares a lot and wants to know I’m okay'. I had never been in a proper relationship before so had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
After months of constant physical and digital abuse, of having to carry a charging bank in fear of her phone dying and not being able to text back, Samantha finally broke up with him. That involved blocking him and all his friends, taking a break from social media, and changing numbers.
She also contacted Netsafe, with screenshots and detailed accounts of his cyber abuse. Samantha was told his contact didn’t violate community guidelines.
Samantha’s story of digital abuse isn’t a unique one.
The 2019 Family Violence Study by Auckland’s School of Population Health estimates over 120,000 women in New Zealand experience cyber abuse by an intimate partner that makes them feel controlled or frightened.
Associate Professor Janet Fanslow helped complete the study. She says technology is changing the ways in which women can be harmed, adding another tool to the arsenal for abusers.
“It gives abusers another mechanism to try to exert control over people. It's a way to know where other people are, it's a way to keep track of what they're doing."
"The rates of physical behaviors and insulting behavior may be reducing, but things like economic abuse and other controlling behaviors are going up..and we don't necessarily see it as violence.”
Online abuse towards women isn’t always instigated by intimate partners, however. Online trolls and anonymous accounts frequently torment the profiles of women online, like Christchurch City Councilor Sara Templeton.
Sara says as a politician you’re taught to turn the other cheek, to handle the tough stuff. But the constant insults and lies spread about her eventually took a toll.
“As a general thing I think those attacks are trying to intimidate, silence people, to make them not want to be online,” she said.
After a while, she used the Harmful Digital Communications Act to locate the IP address and home of the person trolling her. It emerged the troll was a now-former Young Nat Jessee MacKenzie.
“I was able to go through the process when my harassment had already stopped.. so most people try to find out who their harassers are while they're still being harassed..the process for me took from October to mid-March, so you could imagine that would just be awful.”
“The key challenge is getting the mental capacity to fill out the forms and the evidence together... all the screenshots and that thing.”
Despite finding her own success with the Act, Templeton has since been contacted by a number of people laying out their struggles. She now says it’s time for a change.
“We need to start with a review of the Act (which National and Labour have agreed to).
"We need to be talking to social media platforms as well. Facebook you can report a comment, but if it doesn't reach a threshold of physical harm for example it doesn't get taken down. Those patterns of harassment build up over time, and they need to get picked up by the algorithms or a space to fill out and say that it's happening.”
New Zealand Women’s Refuge helps women deal with cyber abuse constantly, so much so they did their own report on the prevalence of cyberstalking in New Zealand.
“Young women almost never get justice for the digital tactics of abuse they experience.” said refuge policy adviser Natalie Thornburn.
“We can’t address violence against women unless we recognise it in all of its forms and provide a justice response and health response that actually gives meaning to those experiences and recognises how significant they can be.”
Women’s Refuge says part of the issue is due to parts of the New Zealand court system, police and wider society trivialising how damaging abuse through a phone can be.
“Until we talk about as violence, we can’t create safety for women.”
Set-up to fail
Whether it’s digital abuse by intimate partners or random trolls, recent reports have found the internet is set-up in a way where abuse based in misogyny can thrive.
The Center for Controlling Digital Hate recently analysed the direct messages of five public-facing women on Instagram.
They found one in every 15 of the thousands of messages analysed violated Instagram’s own rules, and of the accounts sending hurtful messages, Instagram only acted on one out of 10.
When speaking to Breakfast, the CEO of the Center for Controlling Digital Hate Imran Ahmed said there’s an epidemic of misogyny happening online, and Meta is doing little to help.
“It’s like they put an alarm bell up that isn’t connected to an alarm. Iit’s an after thought rather than building safety by design.”