an illustration with a young person speaking into a megaphone. Around them are images of fists coming out of phone screens.

Three out five young activists face online harassment globally for posting human rights content

Three out of five child and young human rights defenders face online harassment in connection with their activism, according to a new analysis of 400 responses to an Amnesty International questionnaire, distributed to young activists across 59 countries.

More than 1400 young activists participated in the survey conducted as a part of Amnesty International’s global campaign to “Protect the Protest.”

Of those, 400 youth activists aged between 13 to 24 years agreed to the publication of their data.

They faced harassment in the form of hateful comments, threats, hacking and doxing which is often linked to offline abuse and political persecution often perpetrated by state actors with little or no response from Big Tech platforms resulting in the silencing of young people. 

The highest rates of online harassment were reported by young activists in Nigeria and Argentina.

“I have been harassed […] by a stranger because of my pronouns. The stranger told me it is not possible to be a ‘they/them’ and kept sending messages about how I am crazy for identifying the way I identify. I had to ignore the person’s messages,” said a 17-year-old Nigerian queer LGBTI activist who asked not to be identified.

Another young activist – 21-year-old male Nigerian LBGTI rights activist said, “People disagree with my liberal progressive views, and immediately check my profile to see that I am queer Nigerian living in Nigeria, and they come at me with so much vitriol. I am usually scared to share my opinion on apps like TikTok because I can go viral. The internet can be a very scary place,” he said adding that, “Someone cat fishing as a gay man, lured me into coming out to see him after befriending me for a while, and then he attacked me with his friends. This is Nigeria, I couldn’t go to the police for secondary victimization.”

Twenty-one percent of respondents say they are trolled or threatened on a weekly basis and close to a third of the young activists say that they have censored themselves in response to tech-facilitated violence, with a further 14 percent saying they have stopped posting about human rights and their activism altogether.

“I always think twice before making a comment, when I express my political position, I start to get many comments that not only have to do with my position, but also with my body, my gender identity or my sexuality,” said Sofía*, a 23-year-old human rights defender from Argentina shared her experience on X formerly known as Twitter.

The survey respondents said they faced the most abuse on Facebook, with 87 percent of the platform’s users reporting experiences of harassment, compared to 52 percent on X and 51 percent on Instagram.

The most common forms of online harassment are upsetting and disrespectful “troll” comments (60 percent) and upsetting or threatening direct messages (52 percent).

Five percent of the young activists say they have faced online sexual harassment, too, reporting that users posted intimate images (including real and AI-generated images) of them without consent.

For many of the survey participants harassment in relation to their online activism is not limited to the digital world either. Almost a third of respondents reported facing offline forms of harassment, from family members and people in their personal lives to negative repercussions in school, police questioning and political persecution.

Twenty-year-old non-binary activist Aree* from Thailand shared their experience of facing politically motivated prosecution in five different cases whilst they were still a child.

Abdul* a 23-year-old Afghan activist reported being denied work at a hospital after authorities found out about his social media activism.

The Israel-Gaza war currently stands out as an issue attracting high levels of abusive online behaviour, but the threat of online harassment appears to be omnipresent across all leading human rights issues. Peace and security, the rule of law, economic and gender equality, social and racial justice, and environmental protection all served as “trigger topics” for the attacks.

However, the way young activists are targeted varies and appears to be closely linked to intersectional experiences of discrimination, likely harming survivors of identity-based abuse in longer lasting ways than issue-based harassment.

Twenty-one percent of respondents say they have been harassed in connection with their gender and twenty percent in connection with their race or ethnicity. Smaller percentages said they face abuse in connection with their socio-economic background, age, sexual orientation and/or disabilities.

“At first it was simply hateful comments since the posts I published were daring and spoke openly about LGBT rights, which later made me receive threats in private messages and it went further when my account was hacked,” said Paul a 24-year-old activist from Cameroon, on being targeted for his LGBTI related activism adding that, “For 2 years, I have been living in total insecurity because of the work I do as an advocate for the rights of my community online.”

For Paul and many other young activists, online harassment is having deep effects on their mental health. Forty percent of the respondents say they have felt a sense of powerlessness and nervousness or are afraid of using social media. Some respondents have even felt unable to perform everyday tasks and felt physically unsafe. Accordingly, psychological support is the most popular form of support which young activists call for, ahead of easier to use reporting mechanisms and legal support.

Many of the young activists voiced frustrations over leading social media platforms’ failure to adequately respond to their reports of harassment saying the abusive comments are left on the platforms long after being flagged.

Some respondents also felt that social media platforms are playing an active part in silencing them; multiple activists reported that they found posts about the war in Gaza removed, echoing previous reports of content advocating for Palestinian rights being subject to potentially discriminatory moderation by various platforms.

Others highlighted platforms’ role in enabling state-led intimidation and censorship campaigns, undermining activists’ hope for government regulation to provide answers to the challenge of tech-facilitated violence.

Amnesty International has previously documented the repression of peaceful online speech by states including India, the Philippines and Vietnam and is currently calling for global solidarity actions in support of women and LGBTI activists facing state-backed online violence in Thailand.

*The young activists’ names have been changed to protect their identities.

Learn more about Amnesty International’s work to protect children and young people’s rights online: 

Make TikTok safer for children and young people. – Amnesty International