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In 2019, Ofelia Fernandez became the youngest legislator in Latin America, at the age of 19. She has many followers on Instagram and Twitter — but her popularity has also attracted online trolls.
The tweet directed at Ofelia Fernandez reads "Fat Pig." The 21-year-old is sitting in her apartment in Buenos Aires, bathed in light as she reads messages sent to her on social media. Messages like that — and far worse — are sent to Fernandez on a daily basis. Oftentimes, they contain death threats, rape threats and insults.
The online abuse on Twitter or Instagram started in 2019. Back then, Fernandez was running to become the youngest ever member of the Buenos Aires city legislature — and succeeded. She became the youngest legislator in Latin America.
Fernandez represents a generation that has taken to the streets to support women's rights in Argentina. When the protests for legalizing abortions were at their peak, she held a moving speech in front of the National Congress that went viral. As a legislator, Fernandez campaigns for gender equality and women's rights. It's important work, but it has become more tiring since conservative online trolls have targeted her.
The online hate and threats can quickly become a reality in a country where, on average, one femicide is committed every day.
Fernandez is not on her own 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 emphasizes a different issue, but they are united in their fight against the online abuse and violence they face every day.
The scale of violence against women in many Latin American countries has been made visible since the 2015 hashtag #NiUnaMenos. Feminists in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico or Chile used it to raise awareness on the injustices in their countries — and in some cases, they were successful. In Argentina, a bill to legalize abortion was passed in 2020 — two years after Fernandez's speech in front of Congress. In many Latin American countries, conservative opinions are still rampant online, despite women's quotas and laws for gender equality.
A current example from Mexico shows just how dangerous it can be to be a feminist in Latin America. Just a few days ago, three people were shot at a demonstration for gender equality in Guaymas. Incidents like this show that the violence and threats are not only posted online, but are a reality outside the internet too. In 2020, the online abuse made Fernandez take her Twitter account offline for a while. "I was going crazy. I was totally paranoid, I was even scared of going to the supermarket. And at the same time, I also knew that I might be exaggerating."
For months, Fernandez signed off from her social media accounts. She spoke to her friends, family, and counselors in order to learn how to deal with messages that contain detailed descriptions of how someone was going to kill her. Many weeks and countless conversations later, her perspective on hate speech changed, Fernandez said: "I didn't want to be the victim anymore. From now on, I was going to be their opponent. I won't be silenced, and I'll voice my opinion freely. If they can't take it: tough luck."
Fernandez's Twitter account has been back online for several weeks. Today, she rarely checks her private messages and the comments on her page. But she wants to be a role model for the many young women who follow her on Instagram and Twitter. "These horrible messages that I receive, they're not just directed at me, but they're supposed to put off an entire generation that is politically active and fights for progressive values." Fernandez can't let that happen.
Ofelia Fernandez recently started pursuing legal steps against online abusers. She has a team that analyses her social media accounts to detect campaigns targeted at her before making them public. She wants to show that anonymity on the internet does not mean that online abuse will be accepted. This is only the first step for Fernandez, who said a wider societal change was needed for equality for women in Argentina, "as well as transgender people and many other groups that face discrimination around the world." And for the hate and online abuse directed at her to finally stop.