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Facebook investigating online abuse of Samoan author

By Mackenzie Smith

Samoan author Lani Wendt Young is no stranger to online abuse.

She has spoken out on her blog and social media as a survivor of child sexual abuse and is an LGBT rights advocate - both highly contentious issues in conservative Samoa.

Lani Wendt Young
Photo: FB Lani Wendt Young

Lani Wendt Young Photo: FB Lani Wendt Young

But none of her previous experience with bullying on Facebook over the past two years has prepared her for the torrent of threats - of death, rape and otherwise - that began in January on the platform.

A new abuser took the form of a notorious, but anonymous Samoan blog, which is run by multiple people, Ms Wendt Young said.

RNZ Pacific has decided not to name the blog involved.

The blog published a series of serious allegations against Ms Wendt Young and her family, and readers of the blog followed suit, she said.

"I had one man in particular who was quite upset with me writing to tell me that he was going to chop me up and drag my carcass behind his truck, cook me in an umu," she said, using the Samoan word for an earth oven.

Dozens of people - mostly men - using both anonymous and public Facebook profiles continued to harrass Ms Wendt Young, both in English and Gagana Samoa.

But abuse reported to Facebook rarely resulted in it being removed, Ms Wendt Young said, highlighting a problem the social media platform has faced global criticism for.

New Zealand police also turned Ms Wendt Young away, saying there was nothing they could do to enforce content on Facebook, she said.

In a statement, New Zealand police said they took the issue of online offending very seriously and urged concerned people to contact them immediately.

Facebook's publicly available guidelines state that it removes content that degrades or shames individuals, credible threats of real world harm and a range of other nuanced variations of online abuse.

The social media network also provides law enforcement authorities with guidelines and an online form for emergency requests.

"We want people to be able to express themselves freely in a safe and secure environment," a spokesperson said.

"We're currently investigating comments directed at Lani, and will take action on those found to be in violation of our Community Standards."

Change needed

Amnesty International is calling for a reform of New Zealand's digital communications act to improve protections for women.

The group recently found almost a third of women in New Zealand have reported abuse and harassment in online spaces, with worse conditions for women who are Pacific, Māori, LGBT or part of other minority groups.

The prevalence of Facebook and Twitter has worsened conditions for women facing abuse, with little oversight from the social media giants, said Amnesty International's New Zealand campaigns director Meg de Ronde.

"Often you'll hear of people reporting abuse and then it's not removed when it should be, or you'll hear of people reporting abuse and then that person is just able to open their account within another week or so," she said.

Ms Wendt Young said she too had been frustrated with inaction from Facebook over abuse targeting her, bearing the call of "this doesn't breach our community standards".

"It's horrible. And every day you log on and you're afraid to log on because of new stuff that might be there."

She has since shut down active use of her Facebook account, but abuse continues to trickle to her through other inlets like her husband's Facebook account.

"[Facebook] just doesn't seem to have any accountability and I don't think that it's right that people can get away with the things that they say and do on Facebook," she said.

"Facebook has a big part to play and it's not living up to it."

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