Argentinian internet star fights hate speech online | Digital culture | DW

The tweet addressed to Ofelia Fernández reads “Fat Pig”. The 21-year-old sits in her apartment in Buenos Aires, bathed in light as she reads messages sent to her on social media. Messages like these, and much worse, are sent to Ofelia daily. Often they contain death threats, rape threats and hateful slurs.

The online abuse on Twitter or Instagram began in 2019. At the time, Ofelia Fernández was running to become the youngest member of the Buenos Aires city legislature – and succeeded. She became the youngest legislator in Latin America.

Ofelia Fernández with a banner of the Argentinian women’s movement

Activists around the world are targeted

Where does this hatred come from? Ofelia Fernández represents a generation that has taken to the streets to support women’s rights in Argentina. At the height of protests for the legalization of abortion, she gave an emotional speech to the Argentine National Congress that went viral. As a legislator, Ofelia advocates for gender equality and women’s rights. It’s important work, but it’s gotten more tiring since conservative online trolls targeted it.

Online hate and threats can quickly become a reality in a country where, on average, one femicide is committed every day.

But Ofelia is not alone in this fight. Masih Alinejad from Iran, Tatyana Kurbat from Belarus and Rosebell Kagumire from Uganda are all politically active on the internet. Each of these four women focuses on a different issue, but they are united in their fight against the online abuse and violence they face every day.

Ofelia Fernández, a black-haired woman, is seated at a table.

Argentinian politician Ofelia Fernández is often targeted online

Protesters gunned down in Mexico

The extent of violence against women in many Latin American countries has become visible since the hashtag #NiUnaMenos from 2015. Feminists in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico or Chile have used it to raise awareness to the injustices in their country – and in some cases they have succeeded. In Argentina, a bill to legalize abortion was passed in 2020 – two years after Ofelia Fernández spoke to Congress. In many Latin American countries, conservative views still run rampant online, despite women’s quotas and gender equality laws.

A current example from Mexico shows how dangerous it can be to be a feminist in Latin America. Just a few days ago, three people were shot dead during a protest for gender equality in Guaymas. Incidents like this show that violence and threats are not only broadcast online, but are also a reality outside the internet. In 2020, online abuse forced Ofelia to take its Twitter account offline for a while. “I was going crazy. I was totally paranoid, I was even afraid to go to the supermarket. And at the same time, I also knew that maybe I was exaggerating.”

Woman with dark hair and hand on chin looks directly into the camera © Julieta Christofilakis

Ofelia Fernández has become Latin America’s youngest legislator.

Last resort: Farewell Twitter

For months, Ofelia Fernández disconnected from her social media accounts. She spoke to her friends, family and advisers in order to learn how to deal with messages containing detailed descriptions of how someone was going to kill her. Several weeks and countless conversations later, her perspective on hate speech has changed, says Ofelia: “I didn’t want to be the victim anymore. From now on, I was going to be their opponent. I will not be silenced, and I will freely express my opinion. If they can’t accept it: bad luck.

For a few weeks, Ofelia’s Twitter account has been online again. Today, she rarely checks her private messages and comments on her page. But Fernández wants to be a role model for the many young women who follow her on Instagram and Twitter. “These horrific messages that I’m getting, they’re not just directed at me, but they’re meant to put off a whole generation that’s politically active and fighting for progressive values.” Ofelia can’t let that happen.

Ofelia Fernandez

Ofelia Fernandez

On the way to a better world

Recently, Ofelia Fernández also started legal action against much of the online abuse. She has a team that scans her social media accounts for right-wing campaigns aimed specifically at her – before making them public. In this way, she wants to show that anonymity on the Internet does not mean that online abuse will be accepted. For the Argentine politician and activist, this is only the first step. Ofelia believes that broader societal change is needed for women in Argentina, “along with transgender people and many other groups facing discrimination around the world,” to finally experience equality. And for the online hate and abuse directed at her to finally end.

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