Lani Wendt Young

‘Sniper her, rape her, drown her, cook her in an umu’ - and Facebook approves

Lani Wendt Young is an award-winning writer, publisher and journalist of Samoan and Māori heritage. She has written a popular series of young adult fiction, is a mother of five, and was named the 2018 ACP Pacific Laureate.

She is also consistently and viciously attacked online.

Death threats, rape threats and threats to her family - the abuse, primarily on Facebook, has made Lani fear for her life.

Lani tried multiple times to get Facebook to remove the abuse but the complaints were not taken seriously because they were in Samoan. Facebook has also said that for a comment to be considered a “credible threat” it has to include specifics: a weapon, time or location.

In April 2018, Lani went to the New Zealand Police with 800 screenshots of violent and threatening abuse. The first officer she spoke to said, “Why don’t you just change your name on Facebook so they can’t find you anymore?”

They advised her they couldn’t do anything about it and she left the police station in tears. In a follow up email Lani was told to stop writing about topics that triggered the harassment.

The abuse began after she testified before the National Commission of Inquiry into Family Violence in Samoa in 2017. Her testimony was about being a survivor of child sexual abuse and recommendations for how to prevent it in Samoa.

While Lani was a journalist reporting on politics in Samoa she wrote articles expressing her sadness and anger about her church's policy on not blessing or baptising children with gay parents or in a same sex marriage.

"There was lots of hate after that."

That hate turned into an anonymous, targeted and coordinated campaign to frighten, intimidate and silence her.

As Lani said at Netsafe’s 2018 Online Safety Conference:

“When seeking to understand Pasifika cultural norms and values in online spaces – it’s essential to know that as with other collectivist cultures, we are never just individuals. It’s not “me”, it’s always “us”. I speak from the perspective of a Samoan woman, but I believe that the dynamic is very similar for other Pacific Islanders. We are our parents, grandparents, extended family, our village, our church congregations. And when we go online, we carry those connections with us. For a Samoan, using their real name, going online is like being in a village and the internet is a very small place.

Lani now tries to have someone with her in public at all times. She does not feel safe to travel alone.

Eventually Lani found Netsafe, New Zealand's independent non-profit online safety organisation:

“They filed with the website host provider to have abusive content removed. They were unsuccessful. They filed with Facebook to have abusive content removed. Facebook refused. Netsafe appealed. Facebook agreed and shut down the lead abusers and their anonymous pages. But it was a temporary respite only because the pages appealed and Facebook put them back up within a few weeks, only this time, they were more cocky and assured of their untouchability.”

Facebook appeared to not have a moderator who spoke or understood Samoan to review the abuse Lani reported. It’s an example of the irresponsible attitude Facebook (a company worth nearly 500 billion dollars) has had to stopping abuse on the platform. It also demonstrates their failure to scale their moderation and enforcement efforts.  

Lani’s experience also shows a failure by both the platform and the New Zealand government to keep up with the ways in which online hate is being used as a weapon.

Her experience highlights how even with ample evidence and the HDCA and Netsafe in place, online abuse can be dismissed as unsolvable by law enforcement while new anonymous accounts can be set up on Facebook and the abuse and fear continues.