Case Study - Laura O’Connell Rapira

20 November 2017, 13:15 UTC |
Photo by David Tong

TRIGGER WARNING: This section contains information about online abuse, including explicit sexist and violent language, which may be triggering to people.

Laura O’Connell Rapira 

Director of Campaigns at ActionStation, which has built a community of over 140,000 members to participate in campaigns that drive a fairer, more just and sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand

“I used to have a policy that I wouldn’t delete anyone and I would try to engage with them. About a year ago I got rid of that policy for my own self-care and protection because it was just becoming too much.” 

Laura O’Connell Rapira spends a lot of her time engaging with people online. She’s a digital campaigner by trade working as a Campaign Director for ActionStation in New Zealand. She regularly engages online on Twitter and Facebook while also communicating with an email list of close to 200,000. 

When asked about abuse she’s received online she muses, “It’s so interesting because you start to decide that it’s normal behaviour. But imagine if someone came into your house and spoke to you the way some people speak to you online. You would absolutely not put up with it.”  

O’Connell Rapira isn’t only a woman online, she’s a young, Māori, gay women online. And she definitely reckons this magnifies the abuse she gets.  O’Connell Rapira references comments she’s had online like “look at this stupid ugly bitch” and “when will these dumb Māori learn” and it’s clear that these are just some of many she’s had. She sees the most abuse directed her way when she talks publicly online about Māori issues and poverty. “The other major thing that I find usually generates hate is anything about women’s rights.” 

O’Connell Rapira says that pretty much all the abuse she has faced online has been from people who would identify as male. It can range from lower level comments that she suspects the men think are positive like “you’re not just a pretty face, you’ve got a brain as well,” through to someone telling her to kill herself.  

In O’Connell Rapira’s work there was actually a period of time when Action Station stopped using Māori words in emails because just the act of starting an email with “Kia Ora” would guarantee they got abuse. The request that she “kill herself” came from a man who presents online with white supremacy imagery and who apparently reacted to an email that had Māori content. Despite the abuse, they’ve gone back to using Māori language at ActionStation as she acknowledged it felt inauthentic to be changing who they are just because of a few awful people. 

O’Connell Rapira has tried various tactics for handling the harassment and abuse. She has started blocking people on her Facebook page who constantly harangue her. She has also reported the abuse to Facebook and Twitter, although was clear that she found it pointless as the reply was always, “This doesn’t contravene our community standards.” More recently she has taken screen-shots and posted the abuse in an attempt to take the power back. O’Connell Rapira thinks there is some solidarity that comes from responding with public shaming of abuse, but it can also be re-triggering.

“All it takes is for one person to post a nasty comment again underneath…and then your act of trying to own this awfulness can knock you back again.” 

Do you identify as female? Have you experienced online abuse? You can be part of the solution. Support this work by submitting your story.