In late July Lisa-Maria Kellermayr, a 36-year-old general practitioner, was found dead in her Austrian office. She left three suicide notes behind. In the first one she thanked one of her employees.
The second one was addressed to the medical association for letting her down. And in the third one she cursed the police for not helping her.
The verbal violence toward her started in November 2021. Again and again she received detailed descriptions on how she and her employees would be tortured and killed.
These social media posts came from anti-vaxxers and deniers of COVID because she publicly advocated for the COVID vaccine. Again and again Kellermayr asked authorities for help.
But the police advised her to refrain from pushing herself into the public spotlight. In the end she spent all her money on private security, and eventually closed down her practice in June.
Only a couple of days before her suicide I came across a 2021 documentary on Arte, a French-German channel known for its quality, award-winning programs. The documentary was entitled “#dreckshure” (i.e., “filthy whore”) and was made by Belgian journalists Florence Hai-naut und Myriam Leroy.
Together with Kellermayr, they belong to the 73% of women worldwide who’ve experienced cyber misogyny.
“Cyber misogyny” is a term that captures the hatred and harassment toward women in the online world. For daring to publicly voice their opinions, they’re threatened with rape, torture, and murder. They may also be doxed, meaning that someone publishes their private information, such as their address or phone number.
The documentary featured women from countries like Australia, Austria, Belgium, and France.
These women were journalists, politicians, activists, and authors who, for voicing their untraditional opinions, had been attacked on the internet. For example, one woman who was an attorney and activist dared to say on TV that marriage wasn’t a license for sex and that both spouses had to give their consent.
For saying that, she received rape and death threats. Another woman who worked as a journalist and author shared that her husband received discriminating comments after she’d publicly voiced her opinion.
People called him a sissy and blamed him for not being a real man because he couldn’t control his wife.
Even in our modern Western world, we still live in a society where men are supposed to be forceful and bold, and women are expected to be unassertive and compliant. It’s no coincidence that female attorneys or politicians aren’t generally taken as seriously as their male counterparts.
While men may argue their points aggressively, women aren’t expected to show the same passion. And if women nonetheless speak out, they’re punished with hateful comments and threats, mainly from men.
Perpetrators like to refer to the First Amendment to justify their hateful and intimidating language. They wrongly assume that our forefathers established the right to free speech as a free pass to threaten others.
They also wrongly assume that the First Amendment only protects men. It’s indeed ironic that these perpetrators attack women precisely because these women dare to exercise their right to free speech. The hate messages are intended to silence them. And if a woman tries to defend herself against the violence she’s receiving, as Kellermayr did publicly, she’s faced with even more hatred and threats.
Although half of the harassed women, as studies have shown, know their perpetrators, prosecutions and convictions are rare. Instead, women are typically told that receiving threats is the price that comes with speaking out in public, and they’re given the same advice as Kellermayr: Keep your voice low and pick less controversial topics.
Social media platforms, where hate messages are posted, won’t do much either, even though they could easily identify perpetrators. But hatred literally sells, as violent comments attract lots of clicks that earn the platforms lots of money. According to Belgian sociologist Renaud Maes, websites with harsh comments are accessed much more often than others. The more aggressive and brutal the posts are, the more popular the website becomes. When the violence eventually reaches the point where it’s even too much for its followers, the website’s popularity drops. But until this happens, there’s even room for death threats.
Receiving such threats naturally silences women. Especially if they don’t just fear for their own lives but also for their families, or for their employees and patients, as Kellermayr did. According to Anna-Lena von Hodenberg from HateAid, a counseling center for victims of digital violence in Germany, the internet is the most important public square we have today. So if we, as a society, only grant the floor to those who shout the loudest and allow so many other voices to be silenced, we’ll erase democratic public debate. She’s absolutely right. A healthy democracy feeds on exchanging different opinions in respectful conversations with each other. If we don’t protect this diversity of opinion, we’ll lose our democracy.
Kellermayr’s suicide has sparked a discussion on hate speech in Austria. I ask you, dear Reader, to join this discussion. Do some research on Kellermayr and cyber misogyny and spread the word.
And then let us all stand together.
Let’s stand together for respectful democratic debate. Let’s stand together for allowing everyone to voice their opinion, men and women alike, and let’s show those who use violent threats that there is no room for hate speech in our society.
Dr, Daniela Ribitsch is a native of Graz, Austria. She lives in Lock Haven and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport.