Age of Outrage: When online outrage turns to abuse

The world is changing. What was acceptable only a few short years ago is now labelled offensive. Social media is full of outrage from those who don't accept the status quo, and from those who won't accept change.

The Age of Outrage is a new series from Newshub exploring the changes taking place in society right now. Is it all PC gone mad? And who, exactly, are the snowflakes? Join the conversation - #AgeofOutrageNZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Social media has given everyone a platform, but has in some ways amplified outrage.

Nearly every time an opinion is posted online, the comments often descend into brawling, name-calling and abuse - especially if you're part of a minority group.

In some ways, online outrage has led to positive developments, like the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, whose tweets about trying to escape Saudi Arabia as a refugee helped her get to safety in Canada.

As well as this, huge movements like the Women's March, gun control protest March for Our Lives and School Strike 4 Climate have grown out of social media.

NetSafe CEO Martin Cocker has seen all kinds of outrage. His organisation is charged with administering the Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDC), New Zealand's answer to online harassment.

The HDC was introduced in July 2015 to regulate and investigate claims of online abuse - including disclosing sensitive personal facts, harassing a person or inciting them to commit suicide. 

There have been 137 convictions under the Act since it was introduced, with the number rising every year.

In 2018 most of the people convicted under the law were men (48). Fewer than 10 were women.

Mr Cocker told Newshub there's a big range of what could be considered a harmful under the Act.

"It's a whole range of things from people bombarding you with abusive comments, right through to people creating fake sites about other people, spreading falsehoods, through to releasing sensitive images of somebody."

HDC complaints come from all parts of society, but Mr Cocker said NetSafe sees a lot from people who have a disability, women and members of the LGBT community.

Someone who has copped a fair amount of abuse is columnist, TV personality and radio commentator Verity Johnson. She believes the abuse is down to the content she writes about.

"I tend to talk a lot about things that are affecting men and women - as you can imagine that's slightly inflammatory for an online community," she told Newshub.

Ms Johnson said sometimes people will respond in a positive way, or occasionally argue passionately, but the hostility can be hard to deal with.

"There are definitely a couple of threads that come through in the hostility that I get online. Number one is a classic kind of 'you're too fat and ugly to ever get laid, you must be a lesbian', which is what men tell me quite a lot, because, I think, that's what they think would hurt women the most.

Use of the word "snowflake", which often used to imply somebody is too sensitive to accept a certain message, isn't helping the situation either Ms Johnson said.

"I think the biggest snowflake out there is Piers Morgan and so there's a lot of middle-aged-outrage brigade who are very upset by everything and they're snowflakes too.

"But I don't think that it's a particularly useful term. I think it's used to shut people up and I also don't think it's particularly well applied."

Ms Johnson doesn't read her own messages or Instagram DMs - somebody else screens the worst abuse and lets her know what ones to avoid.

She often gets harsh abuse, and was once told to "go shoot yourself in the face".

Mr Cocker said it's hard for people to fully protect themselves online because abusers may be able to get through the tools available for internet users to protect themselves.

He said if somebody is feeling harassed, the best option is to contact NetSafe and speak to the team.

"You can... keep your accounts private and things like that, but by and large if you're out there online then there's a possibility someone will come at you. If they do, then that's what the laws are for."

Ms Johnson had some advice for what people need to do if they're thinking about handing out some abuse, too.

"Everyone gets angry and it's really easy to blast out an angry tweet, but you've got to ask yourself, 'Am I doing this because I have a point? Or am I doing this because I just want to hurt the other person?'

"If you're hurting a person, that's when you got to stop."