Day 612:01Online forum Kiwi Farms under scrutiny after attacks on a Canadian transgender activist
Software developer and transgender activist Liz Fong-Jones remembers how unsafe she felt the first time she says she was harassed by users of American internet forum Kiwi Farms in 2017.
“I was worried for my life, that someone was going to turn up with a gun and shoot into my bedroom,” she told Day 6‘s Saroja Coelho.
Despite never having interacted with the forum at the time, Fong-Jones said she was targeted by some users because she had donated to Trans Lifeline, a non-profit organization serving transgender people in the United States and Canada.
She said they tried to slander Trans Lifeline’s character, and when she pushed back online on their accusations, they published her personal information to the forum, including her home address, her biological parents’ names and a photocopy of her gender and name change.
“I was minding my own business. I was trying to support a crisis hotline for trans people, and now I was in the crosshairs of these people that I’d never met before and that were posting increasingly unhinged and violent threats against me.”
On its homepage, Kiwi Farms describes itself as a “community dedicated to discussing eccentric people who voluntarily make fools of themselves.” Founded by Joshua Moon in 2013, Kiwi Farms is the forum where the 2019 Christchurch mosque gunman revealed his intentions hours before carrying out the attack.
It has been linked in media reports to at least three suicides between 2016 and 2021.
Clara Sorrenti, 28, a transgender activist known as Keffals to her large following on the video-streaming platform Twitch, also blames Kiwi Farms users for harassments she faced last month, including having her hotel room’s location posted on the forum and her Uber Eats account hacked.
“I’m actually quite concerned for my safety,” she told CBC London. “I’ve had to basically go into hiding to make sure no one finds out where I am because I don’t want anything bad to happen to me.”
Sorrenti said she has left Canada in the hopes of escaping the harassment that has become “really bad.” She’s since been doxed — having personal information about her posted online — in Northern Ireland.
In response to a request for comment on the allegations of harassment from Sorrenti and other transgender people, as well as people with autism, Kiwi Farms replied: “The press are scum.” Kiwi Farms also provided a link to the site’s version of events related to Sorrenti.
Fong-Jones, who’s based in Vancouver, said the targeted harassment and abuse is the unfortunate reality “when a site like Kiwi Farms and their fellow travellers [go] full force after you.”
“I hope that [Sorrenti is] able to rest at some point,” she said. “But unfortunately, that’s going to take a while, until [Kiwi Farms] either are taken offline or they lose attention and go focus on someone else.”
Fong-Jones described Kiwi Farms’s harassment campaigns as “psychological torture.” She said forum users typically target people who are financially precarious, who are role models to marginalized groups such as transgender people or those who are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent.
“They will often try to spread false rumours or character-assassinate you and try to get you fired from your job,” she said. “[They’ll] try to get you no longer able to pay your rents, that you lose your housing and you lose your ability to feed yourself. And they also tend to go after loved ones, family, partners.”
“You can see how isolating that might be for someone who has now been kind of repeatedly pushed and shoved to the brink.”-Liz Fong-Jones
She said their “intention is to disconnect [victims] from any sources of support in their life.”
“[They] try to apply as much pressure as they can to you, in order that when they tell you later on that the only way out is for you to kill yourself, that you will,” she said.
Part of this is done by threatening to target anyone the victim may be in contact with, according to Fong-Jones.
These threats cause “people [to] either to pull away from you in the first place or for you to deliberately disconnect yourselves from them in order to avoid bringing them in the way of harm,” she said.
“So you have no friends, you have no one to talk to, you have no one to confide in because you’re afraid that they’re going to get targeted for their association with you.”
According to Fong-Jones, they’ll also target a person’s social media accounts by spamming reports to the platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, in order to prevent the person from posting and reaching out to anyone online for support.
“You can see how isolating that might be for someone who has now been kind of repeatedly pushed and shoved to the brink,” she said.
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While their target suffers, Kiwi Farms’s users celebrate, according to Fong-Jones.
“They basically view it as a success if they can get someone fired from their job, a success if they can get someone to commit suicide,” she said. “That is part of their sustained campaign … in trying to get transgender people to no longer exist.”
The lack of assistance from some law enforcement departments doesn’t help victims dealing with these users, according to Fong-Jones.
In her case, she said, the answers she got from the New York Police Department in 2017 “basically were you should log off, that if you just ignore it they’ll go away.”
Day 6 requested a comment from the New York Police Department but hasn’t received a response.
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Social media law
One company that has faced calls to disassociate itself from Kiwi Farms is Cloudflare, a content delivery network and caching provider that provides caching and denial-of-service prevention services to Kiwi Farms.
Although Cloudflare initially seemed to suggest it wouldn’t drop Kiwi Farms as a customer last week, the company blocked the website a few days later.
In an email to Day 6, Cloudflare public relations director Leigh Ann Acosta said that the company has proactively reached out to law enforcement highlighting “what it believes are potential criminal acts and imminent threats to human life” over the last two weeks.
“While law enforcement in these areas are working to investigate, unfortunately the process is moving more slowly than the escalating risk — and the level of threats on the site has escalated in the last 48 hours to the point we believe constitutes an emergency,” she said.
She added that Cloudflare’s decision to ban Kiwi Farms “is not an effective or long-term solution.”
“We believe we need better legal mechanisms across society to ensure protection of those who come under threat of violence online.”
Emily Laidlaw, Canada Research Chair in cybersecurity law at the University of Calgary, said she’s uneasy focusing on what Cloudflare’s role should be because of the lack of tools in its toolbox.
“You want social media companies that can use softer types of mechanisms to deal with these things, whether they’re flagging content or … nudging users to rethink sharing something before reading it,” she said.
“There are none of those tools available when you start looking at, you know, the Cloudflare and Amazon web services of the world. So the fact that the pressure is being put on those players, it speaks to the lack of any regulation by Kiwi Farms, but it’s also a bit makes me uneasy.”
It’s also difficult to hold American online service providers like Kiwi Farms and Cloudflare responsible because of Section 230 of the U.S Communications Decency Act, Laidlaw said.
Section 230 protects American online service providers from liability that may occur from their users’ online statements.
“It was supposed to protect companies, whether they take down content or leave it up,” Laidlaw said.
“The problem with Section 230 is that it did not actually incentivise responsibility. So companies could take advantage of the shield from liability, but not take any steps to actively moderate content and protect users.”
That’s why, specific to online harassment, Laidlaw believes the first step to holding users accountable is to implement online harms legislation — something that Canada doesn’t have but is working on.
“It would be targeting, specifically, what the responsibilities would be of these different online services to manage the risks of harm,” she said.
“It does not address those that are actually engaging in the criminal conduct, but what are the responsibilities of the social media service, perhaps maybe other online services? That’s what that kind of legislation would target.”