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Montreal-based geneticist Fatima Tokhmafshan says that it’s a “gut punch” every time she reads a hateful online message.Christinne Muschi

Fatima Tokhmafshan was just doing her job. The Montreal geneticist, known for her tweets debunking false information about the COVID-19 virus, was invited on a Vancouver-based radio show in November to share her insights about various modes of testing. But the conversation didn’t go as planned.

“It started off with the host asking me about the PCR test, and so I explained it to him and the difference between the rapid tests and how they’re done,” says Ms. Tokhmafshan, who works at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre. “He then played a tape of someone speaking about border travel restrictions and the conversation took a turn.”

Speaking from her expertise as a scientist, Ms. Tokhmafshan advised caution while travelling due to the rise in COVID-19 cases. The host then made a remark about how if Ms. Tokhmafshan were to be in charge of policy, she would “probably close the border.”

Ms. Tokmafshan says she “froze” because she wasn’t expecting the host to make such a comment.

“He was misinterpreting my advice,” she says. “The right thing for him to do would have been to ask me what I would do if I was a policy maker, to which I would have responded: I am not a policy expert and I am giving you this opinion based on the best current data that is available. You know, let the woman speak for herself.”

The show ended a few minutes after the comment was made, but Ms. Tokmafshan says what followed for the next 48 hours was a nightmare. Her email inbox and Twitter DMs were flooded with hateful messages threatening rape and slurs calling her a “filthy immigrant” who “wants to ruin the country with lockdowns.”

Inadequate cyber laws

In a pandemic which has seen communities divided on issues such as masking, vaccinations and lockdowns, women in science and medicine who are prominent on social media have faced an unprecedented amount of online hate.

Recently, the Canadian Medical Association called on the federal government and major social media companies to do more to protect physicians and other health workers who are being harassed online. They pointed to a 2021 study by U.S. medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine that showed a disproportionate number of women are targets of this harassment.

In 2015, Bill C-13 came into effect to protect Canadians from online crimes. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act prohibits non-consensual distribution of intimate images, empowers courts to pursue this type of online crime and provides monetary reimbursements to victims. But legal experts have noted that there is a huge spectrum of harassment and abuse that the law doesn’t address.

“If you look at the vast majority of online harassment, it’s not necessarily so violent that it meets the threshold for being a crime,” says Cynthia Khoo, technology and human rights lawyer and the author of Deplatforming Misogyny, a report released by national non-profit Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).

“If 100,000 people send one tweet each, the impact on the person on the receiving end is massive,” Ms. Khoo says. “It does seem like there should be a legal remedy because that is a devastating degree of harm. There’s this mismatch in the law between what the law is able to address and what actually happens on the ground when it comes to online harassment.”

Ms. Tokhmafshan says that it’s a “gut punch” every time she reads a hateful message.

“There is pain and fear, but also sadness that people are so motivated and driven by that hatred that they’ve taken the time to go find who [I am], compose a message, click send and wait for that bomb to explode in my inbox,” she says.

A need for support

Ottawa-based psychologist Helen Ofosu says that regular recipients of such hate can be even more negatively affected if they perceive a lack of support from employers, who may claim that what happens on social media is beyond their control.

“If you have an employer who doesn’t care that you no longer feel secure, they just think well, it’s on you, it’s not a good feeling. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re part of a team, doesn’t make you feel engaged. That’s when disillusionment sets in and that affects everybody,” says Dr. Ofosu.

Sabina Vohra-Miller is the co-founder of the Vohra Miller Foundation, an organization focused on healthcare access and equity. A philanthropist with a background in pharmacology and toxicology, Ms. Vohra-Miller set up a volunteer science-based platform called Unambiguous Science at the start of the pandemic to educate the public on COVID-19 and vaccines, making her a target for online abuse.

Ms. Vohra-Miller, who has 16,000 followers on Twitter, says she reflexively blocks out any message with even a hint of hate in it.

“I remember the first couple that spooked me; I took precautions, like taking down all my personal and contact information on various online platforms. I was definitely shaken up then,” she says. “But now, there’s been so much of that kind of behaviour that I tell myself, I’m not going to give [them] this space and I’m going to just not read it.”

Both Ms.Tokhmafshan and Ms. Vohra-Miller say the best way to counter these attacks is to keep doing their work. But they also feel that better laws and better support systems for victims of online hate will encourage women to stay on social media and enable them continue to work uninhibited.

“This hatred is making women nervous,” says Ms. Vohra-Miller. “For instance, when [COVID-19] vaccinations were announced for kids aged 5-11, I spoke to pediatricians specializing in infectious diseases who refuse to speak on any social media or town halls because they just don’t want to get into any of that.”

If women are not sufficiently supported and protected from online hate, she says, “we [will be] missing out on really quality people who could be educating and advocating but choose not to because they are terrified of the repercussions.”

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