Case Study - Lizzie Marvelly
TRIGGER WARNING: This section contains information about online abuse, including explicit sexist and violent language, which may be triggering to people.
Lizzie Marvelly - Writer, Musician, Creator
In May 2015, Lizzie launched Villainesse.com, an online media project aiming to create smart, ‘no-filter’ media for young women. Lizzie was motivated to create Villainesse.com because she wanted to hear more young female voices represented in the media. Bringing together bright young student and citizen writers and inspirational contributors, Villainesse is on a mission to empower young women.
In September 2015, Lizzie launched Villainesse’s first major campaign, the globally-successful #MyBodyMyTerms. Aiming to spark conversation about victim-blaming, consent and sexual violence.
“I do find that people will seek me out. They might not necessarily follow me but they will seek me out to abuse me.”
What becomes clear from Lizzie Marvelly’s experience of online abuse in New Zealand is the huge amount of time and energy that the people posting this abuse are taking from her. Marvelly’s work as a writer, editor and musician requires her to be active on social media. She has followings of close to 10,000 on Facebook and just under 8,000 on Twitter. She has also founded her own media site Villanesse and writes a regular column for The New Zealand Herald. But in order for her to sustain this profile, she’s had to deal with regular abuse. It ranges from the low-level belittling of her as a “stupid girl” all the way to comments with very graphic sexual and violent content. As part of keeping a record she screenshots examples and files them in folders – there is even a folder reserved for the abuse she receives targeting her father.
Marvelly estimates around 90% of the harassment she receives is from people that identify as male online and she recognises a group of around 100 recurring names. She muses about online harassment as a “pack sport”, saying, “it actually doesn’t matter if I participate or not, they’re just using me to bond.”
“It actually doesn’t matter if I participate or not, they’re just using me to bond.”
Due to her music career, she’s been in the public eye since her late teens but says she noticed a pronounced increase in abuse over the last two years when she started publicly sharing her opinions. There are particular topics that Marvelly says are likely to get abuse, for instance when she writes about Māori and trans-rights. But she also recounts real examples of simply asking for traffic directions, discussing her day or posting about shoes that have resulted in online attacks. “You think you’ve posted something that’s quite relaxed and fun and then all of a sudden it’s not relaxed and fun anymore.”
She also notes there is an intersectional aspect to the abuse she receives, as it’s not just gendered but also around her identity as Māori. The harassment can take the form of either insulting her as a “stupid Māori bitch” or accusing her of betraying her “white side”. This intersection of her identities heightens the level of abuse she can receive and the offensiveness of the insults.
At one point last year Marvelly even attracted the attention of Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative British political commentator associated with the far-right. She said posting about Brexit resulted in Yiannopoulos retweeting her comment and his followers from around the world inundating her with responses. “There were some pretty vile threats in there – we’re going to come and rape you and that sort of stuff.” Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter in July 2016 following a large amount of racist abuse that he generated targeting American actor Leslie Jones.
"There were some pretty vile threats in there – we’re going to come and rape you and that sort of stuff.”
Marvelly has tried multiple mechanisms to deal with the harassment online. As well as keeping records of most of the abuse she also regularly blocks or bans people if they’re abusive. She has tried to engage with these commenters, appealing to their reason and humanity, or using humour to defuse the situation. She’s used both the Twitter and Facebook reporting functions, along with reporting content to Netsafe (a New Zealand not-for-profit that works on online safety). All of these actions by Marvelly take time though and so far none of the mechanisms have resolved the problem. “It’s like whack-a-mole…there have been a few individuals like this where I’ll block them on Facebook and they’ll turn up on Twitter. I’ll block them on Twitter and they’ll find their way to Instagram and then finally they’ll find their way to YouTube. It’s like they chase you around the internet…It’s super creepy.”
While Marvelly laughs off some of the absurdity of the situation and the types of people who spend their energy harassing her online it’s clear it has a huge toll on her as well. “I think the thing that really sticks in my mind is that it is ridiculous that I’ve had to develop all of these coping mechanisms and all of these tactics and become something of an expert in this subject. I didn’t ask for this. When I think about how much knowledge I’ve acquired in dealing with trolls it makes me sad.”
“I absolutely without a doubt believe that female public figures – especially women in positions of visibility who dare to share an opinion – are treated far more harshly than men in those same roles.”
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