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Despite IRL and URL abuse, Ireland’s pro-choice activists remain strong

Physically threatened and trolled to hell: the referendum on abortion has seen anti-choicers get ugly and violent

Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.

The first time I received proper, nasty online abuse was after I wrote an article on the Ulster Rugby rape trial outcome earlier this year. The comments ranged from calling me “stupid,” “a bitch,” and “a liar” and on Twitter I received a DM from a Britain First account saying that I was peddling “disgusting fake news” and deserved what the victim got. I battered down the hatches – went private for a few days and blocked abusive accounts. I thought about the ways people could find me, my friends, and family and seriously considered deactivating social media accounts if it got worse. The storm passed but it was a taste of the kind of abuse some people receive on a daily basis.

The internet is a wonderful thing, especially for activists. It can be a tool for spreading news and information, discovering like-minded people, and building a community. Movements like Black Lives Matter, Free Palestine, and most recently, the Together4Yes movement, all exist offline, but their primary home is social media. But it’s also the internet. Abuse and trolls are wide-spread and rarely curtailed as Twitter has been loudly condemned for not doing enough to stop abuse, particularly racism, homophobia, and sexism.

The Repeal movement and Together4Yes campaign accelerated at a fiery momentum at the end of 2017 when the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment – the Irish law prohibiting abortion in nearly all circumstances – was announced and pro-choice supporters took to the streets and online to campaign for a Yes vote. While most campaigners would testify to a generally positive experience canvassing and campaigning, there have been horrifying accounts of verbal and physical abuse.

Jade was walking towards Heuston Station in Dublin when she experienced an assault. “I was wearing my green Together4Yes t-shirt to help leaflet there. A middle-aged man was approaching from the opposite direction and grimacing at me and my t-shirt. As we were passing each other he spat onto my t-shirt and continued walking. I was in disbelief. I’m angry that I didn’t respond but I was utterly shocked.”

Jade believes that being a young woman walking alone played into the man’s attack. “I think that he would have never done that to a man. It demonstrates the horrific level of misogyny deeply rooted in some of the No campaigners. Frankly, I think it shows the desperation and hypocrisy of the ‘Love Both’ campaign at this stage,” she tells me. “I can’t understand how you can claim to love both and then assault a woman who’s campaigning for her reproductive rights. It’s sad that they are resorting to those filthy tactics but I find comfort in the fact that Yes campaigners have remained compassionate and caring despite the difficulties we’ve encountered.”

Accounts of women wearing pro-choice clothing being shouted at and spat at have undoubtedly increased since the referendum’s announcement. While Jade and others say the kind of abuse they experienced is rare, it clearly does happen. However, online is a completely different matter. People can hide behind fake accounts and anonymity and abuse is epidemic, coming from a range of sources – some religious zealots, some extreme anti-choice smear campaigns, and, more simply, some trolls. They can vary from direct threats to hurling abuse to sending graphic images to vocal pro-choice supporters.

To counter online abuse, Repeal Shield was set up. Run by six Irish volunteers – three based in Ireland and three overseas, Repeal Shield uses a freely available block tool called Block Together, which subscribers can sign up to. One of the volunteers, Brian, tells me that it works by “automatically blocking the 12k Twitter accounts that have been deemed to fit our criteria (being abusive, sending grotesque imagery, or propagating misinformation regarding repeal or abortion). We have around 4000 subscribers.” Somewhat surprisingly, most of the blocked accounts (70 per cent) are based in North America, showing that isn’t a solely Irish issue.    

One Repeal Shield subscriber, Rachel, based in Northern Ireland, uses the block tool to curtail online abuse. “I’ve been quite vocal about being pro-choice in public spaces and online for about two years,” she says. “Most of the abuse I've experienced has been directed towards me via Facebook and Twitter. I'm lucky to have very supportive family and friends so the online abuse usually hasn't come from people I know personally, but either outright trolls or people who are annoyed that I regularly call out anti-choice politicians and policies in Northern Ireland. The online abuse has included graphic pictures, threats of sexual violence, cruel comments about my family and consistent bullying from a few individuals.”

“I can’t understand how you can claim to love both and then assault a woman who’s campaigning for her reproductive rights”

Rachel believes that she wouldn’t be able to use Twitter without Repeal Shield. “I'd be bombarded constantly… Repeal Shield simply makes things manageable.”

Tara Flynn, an actor and activist, wrote candidly on Twitter about some of the vile abuse and actions she had experienced from anti-choice trolls – in particular, several accounts had targeted her and other activists using a fake campaign. One page, masquerading as a ‘Repeal’ supporting account, shared images of Tara with false quotes about Down’s Syndrome and abortion, attributed to her. Another account, pretending to be a Manchester-based pro-choice group, was found to be direct messaging young female repeal activists and asking them to meet in real life at the city’s secluded docks area. This extremely sinister and potentially dangerous targeting was shared widely in pro-choice circles.

Despite receiving online and real life abuse, none of the pro-choice women I spoke to are in any way deterred from their experiences. “If I went away and shut up, that would be giving in,” says Rachel. “The support and constant solidarity of my activist friends allows me to keep at it. We're slowly chipping away at the established narratives about abortion in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – that was always going to provoke a nasty reaction from people who want to maintain the status quo.”

While incidents of spitting and physical abuse are rare, verbal assaults are far more common. Anyone who’s worked a repeal stall or canvassed will have had accusations of murder shouted at them. While Rachel was canvassing in Cavan with Together for Yes earlier this month, she says “a man driving past spotted out high-vis jackets and slowed down to ask is what we were doing. We explained that we were canvassing for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum and he then shouted “that’s murder you’re doing!” and drove off again. Verbal harassment isn’t exclusively in Ireland either. Lauren, who co-founded the Scottish Irish Abortion Rights Campaign group, was with a large group of Irish people wearing repeal jumpers at Glasgow Airport going home to vote. She says that “an old, gentle-looking English man said to us “don’t get involved in baby murder.”

This has been a long, challenging campaign; dealing with trolls and the graphic messaging of the opposing anti-choicers, rallying, and pushing an urgent message can be a full-time job in itself. Leanne Woodfull, a Dublin-based blogger and vocal pro-choice activist, says that working towards repeal has taken an emotional, physical, and mental toll, particularly as someone who has dealt with anxiety and depression. “Although each and every effort moves us closer to a ‘yes’ win, it’s vital that we as activists know when to momentarily step back and take a breather,” she says. She asserts that digital detoxing when possible is important for mental strength, sleeping enough, and talking about stress out loud with close, supportive networks. “Regarding trolls and the like,” Leanne says, “I’m well used to them at this stage, and tend to just block and ignore. They’re not worth the typing or thinking time!”

Jade isn’t going to stop wearing pro-choice clothing in public, either. “(After the attack) of course I was shaken and upset but I was lucky to have support from friends and family who are pro-choice and who encouraged me to get back out there. I am not at all more wary or discouraged about being publically pro-choice. In fact, this has only solidified the importance of being vocal and as active as possible to ensure the eight is repealed. Women deserve better.”