Politics

Young ACT faces more questions over online harassment

A man accused of online sexual harassment was allowed back into Young ACT’s online spaces after being removed for making Islamophobic comments. Marc Daalder and Laura Walters report

One of the men at the centre of a Young ACT sexual harassment inquiry was previously removed from the organisation’s online forums for Islamophobic comments in the wake of the March 15 attacks.

This revelation comes as the ACT-affiliated youth organisation grapples with widespread issues regarding sexual harassment and abuse, rape culture, and inappropriate and potentially harmful behaviour in online spaces.

The man responded to grief about the March 15, 2019 terrorist attack, which resulted in the deaths of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, by referencing terrorist attacks overseas committed by Muslims.

The comments were noticed by the Young ACT members who were in charge of the official meme page, named David Seymour Memes for Over-Taxed Liberal Teens. The man was then kicked out of the group.

Although the man had previously received temporary suspensions from the group, this latest banning led to an uproar over free speech.

ACT Party leader David Seymour, who was also an active member of the online group, intervened, and supported the decision of the group’s administrators. The admins removed the man from the group after conducting an online poll.

“If there is going to be a group with my name, I’d prefer it was not a haven for dickheads and dickish behaviour."

At the time, Seymour said he would have kicked the man out of the group “on the ‘no dickhead rule’.”

“Freedom of speech is well and good, but listing a whole lot of other atrocities carried out by people who have the same religion as 50 people who just got killed plainly fails the time honoured test of not being a complete and utter dick at times like this,” he said in a comment on the page, posted three days after the Christchurch attacks.

“If there is going to be a group with my name, I’d prefer it was not a haven for dickheads and dickish behaviour.

“If it carries on, I will ask Facebook not to host a group using my name that contains such behaviour.”

The official rules of the group similarly note that posts within it would reflect on the ACT Party and Seymour himself.

“Your comments reflect on you, and they reflect on supporters of David!” the rules state.

Man allowed to continue behaviour

Despite his earlier comments, the 27-year-old man was allowed to rejoin the Young ACT Facebook group on July 25. 

It is unclear why the Young ACT members in charge of the group allowed the man to rejoin, and Young ACT has not responded to Newsroom’s requests for comment.

On September 19, the man posted a picture of himself posing with Seymour. “Always good to catch up with a fan,” he wrote.

“Oh wow, didn’t realise you are [the man’s name]!” Seymour responded in the comments.

In response to a request for comment, Seymour said he did not believe this behaviour was a big issue.

“Obviously, I express my disapproval of discriminatory comments if I become aware of them, but I’m focused on bigger issues than what some person who has never been a member of Young ACT has said online,” he said.

He said the man in question was not, and had never been, a member of Young ACT.

However, the man was active in the youth organisation’s online groups, and had attended official ACT events, wearing an ACT T-shirt. He was also repeatedly permitted by Young ACT executive leadership to rejoin the official Facebook group, despite a history of racism, Islamophobia and harassment.

ACT leader David Seymour said he intervened in discriminatory comments when he became aware of them, but was "focused on bigger issues" than what the man said online. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Although the man also made sure to express his disapproval of the Christchurch terror attack, he made other Islamophobic comments in the Young ACT group, including saying practising Islam made people “dangerous/evil”.

He also made comments that supported far-right ideology in private chats. While these groups weren’t officially affiliated with Young ACT, prominent Young ACT members were present in these groups, and were aware of the man’s general online behaviour.

In one group, he posted a popular far-right meme depicting a Jewish person as a spider inciting a protest for Black Lives Matter, feminism and LGBT rights. The protesters are drawn as racialised caricatures. In front of the crowd, a medieval crusader and a viking, meant to represent white civilisation, prepare to attack the protest.

“Join me brothers,” the man wrote.

In another post, he indicated he thought Jews might orchestrate his death.

In response to a request for comment from Newsroom, the man denied being racist.

“The allegations of racism are false,” he said. “Oh, and I’m talking about elites. Not all Jews. That’s stupid.”

Man involved in sexual harassment

After rejoining the group - following his expulsion after March 15 - he became a prolific poster of sexually explicit, and potentially harmful, comments on Young ACT-affiliated pages.

These comments were largely targeted at young women in the group, including Young ACT former vice president Ali Gammeter.

Newsroom​ has seen a collection of the man’s online messages and social media posts on a range of pages both directly administered by, and affiliated with, Young ACT.

The messages are sexually explicit, and are not appropriate for publication. They include jokes about sexual assault and sexual harassment.

In May, Ali Gammeter publicly resigned from Young ACT due to being “sexually harassed, slutshamed, and ignored” for months.

The 18-year-old said she was not the only victim of this behaviour.

Following Gammeter’s resignation, the ACT Party launched an independent investigation into the claims of sexual harassment and abuse within Young ACT. 

It is understood the investigation has been completed, and while the party had planned to release an anonymised summary of the findings, Gammeter has asked for the findings not to be released in order to protect herself and other victims.

“[He] could freely post sexual harassment with no repercussion because Young ACT didn't see it as their responsibility to make consequences for Young ACT members on these pages.”

Gammeter said she believed it was right to remove the man from Young ACT’s online spaces following his Islamophobic and racist comments, adding that this action should have been taken earlier, and Young ACT shouldn’t have needed a poll to do it.

She said she believed he should have never been allowed to rejoin the group.

“We shouldn't be providing a platform and an audience for harmful people.”

The man continued to post islamophobic and racist content after March 15, which Gammeter said she and others called out.

This was when the sexual harassment began, she said.

As well as tagging Gammeter in “hate posts”, he also shared private information about her with others.

“[He] could freely post sexual harassment with no repercussion because Young ACT didn't see it as their responsibility to make consequences for Young ACT members on these pages.”

Young ACT leaders did not respond to requests for comment regarding how they handled this behaviour, or how they maintained safety in their online spaces, more generally.

Former Young ACT vice president Ali Gammeter says sexual harassment, harmful comments, and rape culture persist within the political youth organisation. Photo: Supplied

The man in question denied his involvement in sexually harassing Gammeter, and others, despite screenshots proving otherwise.

“The allegation [sic] of sexual harassment are false although I REPLIED in a manner that I’ve apologised directly for,” he said. 

He added that he thought the ACT Party shouldn’t be responsible for anything that occurred online.

“This is childish nonsense,” he said.

The man provided Newsroom with some screenshots of inappropriate comments one of the women in the group made to him in private online groups, and via private messages.

Two of the comments alluded to violence, and one was of a sexual nature.

The man said he believed these comments justified his behaviour. 

But those who were the target of the man’s online behaviour said he used these isolated comments to justify what they described as persistent sexist and abusive behaviour. 

Newsroom understands his behaviour was reported to police, after the alleged harassment became constant. The police warned him to leave Gammeter alone.

This online behaviour is part of what has been described as a problematic, and potentially harmful, culture within Young ACT and throughout youth politics.

Those who have spoken to Newsroom for stories relating to the online, and offline, culture within Young ACT, and other youth political wings, say this type of behaviour is rampant, and difficult to control due to the layers of private and public online groups.

However, Gammeter and other former members of Young ACT say neither the youth organisation nor the ACT Party were willing to take responsibility for these online spaces. Their unwillingness to take action had led to further harm.

Young ACT not alone

As previously mentioned, Young ACT’s executive members did not respond to requests for comment. The ACT Party referred Newsroom to leader David Seymour.

Young ACT has recently been under public scrutiny for its handling of sexual harassment and abuse allegations, as well as broader cultural issues within the organisation.

But it’s not the only political youth wing to face these issues.

Young Labour has also been dealing with ongoing sexual assault and harassment allegations in recent years.

In 2018,​ Newsroom ​reported on sexual assaults of four people at a Young Labour summer camp. This resulted in a review of the incident and the party’s response, as well as a police investigation. In 2019, a 21-year-old pleaded guilty to two charges of assault.

The party’s general secretary also revealed to media that another person in Young Labour had contacted him with their experience of sexual assault at one of the youth wing’s events.

And in 2019, the Labour Party was investigated by Maria Dew after a former staffer alleged sexual assault. ​Five complainants were involved, but Dew's report​ found the allegations could not be substantiated. The party’s handling of these allegations led to the resignation of party president Nigel Haworth.

In 2018, Newsroom reported police were investigating an incident following a Young Nationals event in central Auckland, in which a teenage woman reported inappropriate touching and behaviour by a male Young Nats member. The young man was subsequently removed from National's youth wing.

Where to get help:

National Rape Crisis helpline: 0800 88 33 00

Safe to Talk national helpline 0800 044 334 or ​www.safetotalk.n​z

Women's Refuge​ (For women and children) - 0800 733 843.

Shine​ (For men and women) - free call 0508-744-633 between 9am and 11pm.

1737, Need to talk?​ Free call or text 1737 any time for mental health support from a trained counsellor

What's Up​ – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline​ – 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.

Youthline​ – 0800 376 633, free text 234, email [email protected], or find online chat and other support options ​here​.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.

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