Rape threats, body-shaming and doctored photos: women supporting the anti-government protests in Hong Kong say they are being harassed online by suspected pro-Beijing trolls.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the financial hub’s streets week after week in the biggest challenge to China’s rule of the semi-autonomous city for decades.
But female protesters posting support for the pro-democracy movement said they had experienced a slew of sexist online attacks in response.
Women supporting the anti-government protests in Hong Kong say they are being harassed online by suspected pro-Beijing trolls. One female demonstrator holds a placard during a rally on August 28 to protest against alleged sexual violence carried out by anti-riot police officers
Female Hong Kong demonstrators protest against alleged police sexual violence, holding aloft purple lights in solidarity with abuse victims on August 28. Female protesters posting support for the pro-democracy movement say they have experienced a slew of sexist online attacks
Protesters wave their phones in the air during a rally against police sexual harassment on August 28. After discovering a doctored picture of herself online, one female student said: ‘They are not attacking my views or anything, they just attack me because I am female’
‘They are not attacking my views or anything, they just attack me because I am female,’ said Hong Kong student Mickey Leung Ho Wun.
The 17-year-old discovered a doctored picture of her at a pro-democracy rally was being spread on Facebook via a page supporting the city’s police.
In the original, Wun is standing next to a banner reading ‘I am a secondary school student’ but in the altered version, the sign reads ‘I am not wearing any underwear’.
‘These are Hong Kong people who are pro-Beijing,’ Wun speculated of the users sharing the picture.
Attendees in a rally on August 28 hold their phone lights to support female protesters. They share the #ProtestToo hashtag, a play on 2017’s global #MeToo movement that exposed sexual harassment in high-profile industries – and helped improve attitudes towards abuse survivors
Hong Kong’s female protesters claim the abuse against them has intensified since Beijing ramped up its hardline rhetoric over the demonstrations in the past few weeks
Another young female protester, Ka Yau Ho, said a photograph shared online of her being detained by the police during a rally was altered so it appeared her nipples were showing.
Celebrity Hong Kong singer turned activist Denise Ho said on Facebook the aim of the online attacks against her was to ‘ignore her will, ignore her vision, focus on her exterior and dress, and then demonise.’
These women said they suspected pro-Beijing trolls were behind the sexist abuse, as the majority of messages were in simplified Chinese – predominantly used in mainland China.
They added that the abuse has intensified since Beijing ramped up its hardline rhetoric over the protests.
On Wednesday evening, thousands rallied against alleged police sexual violence, holding aloft purple lights in solidarity with abuse victims.
Celebrity Hong Kong singer turned activist Denise Ho said on Facebook the aim of the online attacks against her was to ‘demonise’. Miss Ho is seen at a rally on August 28 in Hong kong
Singer and LGBT activist Denise Ho poses for a photograph with protesters during a rally calling on the Hong Kong police to answer accusations of sexual violence against protesters
Attendees shared the #ProtestToo hashtag, a play on 2017’s global #MeToo movement that exposed sexual assault and harassment in high-profile industries – and helped improve attitudes towards abuse survivors.
But women at the protest told AFP they had stopped posting online as the rhetoric against the protesters increased.
A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women said online harassment was ‘a weapon to harm women,’ adding that it was linked to outdated social norms and cultural values.
Social media has been a key battleground for both sides during the protests.
Earlier this month tech giants Twitter and Facebook said they had suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts emanating from China, aimed at undercutting the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protest movement.
Female secondary school students gather in support of the ongoing pro-democracy protests at Edinburgh Place in Central in torrential rain at the start of the new term on Monday
Two female students talk to each other at the rally on Monday. Some of the pupils have skipped today’s classes completely and started gathering at Edinburgh Square in Central from 9:30am
The #ProtestToo hashtag was a play on 2017’s global #MeToo movement that exposed sexual assault and harassment in high-profile industries. One female protesters is seen holding a #ProtestToo flyer during a demonstration against alleged sexual violence from police
Twitter said it had shut down a further 200,000 accounts before they could inflict any damage.
Laurel Chor, 29, said as a female reporter covering the protests in Hong Kong she had received a ‘constant barrage’ of abuse in her comments and Instagram DMs.
‘They were using words like whore or prostitute and bitch,’ she said.
A Twitter post which called on people to shun a list of female Asian journalists – including Chor – was indicative of how ‘women do get disproportionately targeted and it is not only gendered but also racial,’ she said.
Similarly, journalist Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, born in mainland China but writing about the protests from Australia, said her Twitter account was swamped by negative comments, including rape threats.
‘The insults that were towards me they were a really weird combination of nasty nationalism, sexism, and racism,’ she said. ‘I felt physically sick.’
It is not only pro-democracy demonstrators who have endured abusive gendered attacks.
Unrest in the city escalated again the past weekend due to two days of violent clashes. Pictured, protesters shine laser pointers during a clash at Admiralty district on August 31
Riot police charge in a train at the Tung Chung MTR station after protesters blocked the transport routes to the Hong Kong International Airport during a protest on September 1
Protesters build barricades outside terminals at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday
Photographs of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, have been superimposed onto scantily-clad models’ bodies and pasted on walls in the city.
Meanwhile, the wives of a number of serving police officers were identified by Telegram users who created a poll on the encrypted messaging service to vote on which wife they would rather ‘sleep with’, a senior police source said.
A Twitter spokesperson told AFP that ‘abuse, harassment and hateful conduct have no place on our service’.
Neither Instagram nor Facebook immediately responded to comment but Instagram confirmed they were actively investigating the issue.
What is happening in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong protesters are demanding democratic reforms and the complete withdraw of a law bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China to stand trial. Protesters are pictured waving their phones in a demonstration on August 28
Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of anti-government protests for the past three months. The demonstrations were initially sparked by a proposed law that would allow some criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland China to stand trial.
Hong Kong is ruled under the ‘one country, two system’ policy and has different legal and governing systems to mainland China. The principle was agreed on by China and the UK before the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
However, many residents in the semi-autonomous city feel that their freedoms are eroding due to the tight political grip of Beijing.
The extradition bill has been suspended indefinitely, but the rallies have morphed into a wider pro-democracy movement that calls for government reforms and universal suffrage, among others.
Protesters are also demanding an independent enquiry into what they view as excessive violence from the police during clashes.
Mass rallies, sometimes attended by as many as two million people, have taken place every weekend for 13 weeks since June 9.
Protesters have targeted government buildings, Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong, shopping centres and international airport to express their demands.
The demonstrations often start with a peaceful march or sit-in and end up in violent clashes between activists and police.
A repeated pattern sees activists throwing items such as bricks and petrol bombs at the police and anti-riot officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.
Around 900 people have been arrested in connection with the protests since June.
Beijing has described the situation in Hong Kong the ‘worst crisis’ the city has seen since its handover in 1997. It has also called some activists ‘rioters’ and ‘near terrorists’.
It is widely believed that the central government is determined to quell the chaos before October 1 when the country will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.