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Staggering $3.7 Billion Cost Of Online Abuse 'Barely Scratches The Surface'

Online harassment and cyberhate has cost Australians up to $3.7 billion dollars, a new report from the Australia Institute has found.

And that figure is just the tip of the iceberg, said journalist Ginger Gorman, who commissioned the research as part of her upcoming book Troll Hunting.

"We need to look at the $3.7 billion figure as a red flag, rather than an absolute figure," she told 10 daily.

"We haven't even scratched the surface of this."

Online abuse and cyberbullying has cost Australians as much as $3.7 billion, but this figure could be conservative. Photo: Getty.

The Australia Institute research took into account loss of income and medical expenses when arriving at the $3.7 billion figure, but that doesn't take into account costs incurred due to legal fees, hiring private investigators and security guards, or even moving house.

"People were describing to me the total destruction of their lives," Gorman said of researching her book, out February 2019.

"Having to try to find a new job after their reputation had been wrecked online, being fired from multiple subsequent jobs, having to move house, having to go to court, and then just loads of medical expenses, stress, medication for PTSD... people were telling me that it was costing them, personally, hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The Australia Institute report interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,557 Australians, including frequent and infrequent internet users.

One in three Australians reported experiencing online abuse, but one in thirteen reported experiencing the more extreme cyberhate, defined as "repeated, sustained threats or attacks" resulting in real-life physical and/or psychological harm -- and that's where the higher costs lie.

Abusive language was the most commonly reported type of abuse, while two percent of respondents reported having their details or photographs shared on porn sites. Photo: Australia Institute.

Medical costs ranged from $400 to $250,000. Three people reported legal costs of more than $100,000. Four people were forced to move house, three of them multiple times. Two people spent more than $10,000 hiring IT and private investigators, while three respondents reported $100,000 in lost income.

One woman Gorman spoke to -- a single mother, high flying executive -- had her details put on a sexual website, an experience shared by three percent of women and one percent of men.

"Men were turning up in the middle of the night, asking for really specific, quite filthy sexual acts," Gorman said.

"They'd broken into her gated community to get to her front door. She moved house."

Ginger Gorman was shocked by the extreme levels of abuse she came across while researching her book. Photo: Hilary Wardhaugh / Supplied.

Journalist and anti-violence campaigner Sherele Moody knows all too well the real-life harm that can come from online hate.

In late 2017, she came home to find her dog Reuben poisoned.

"His breath smelt like a rotting carcass, he was traumatised and in great pain," Moody wrote for the Courier Mail.

Thankfully, Reuben recovered from his attack, but later her horse Frank disappeared from her paddock. A few days later, Moody received a voicemail.

"Your nag's gone to [a] glue factory, ya c***.

"Ya won't see him again," she heard. She hasn't seen Frank since.

Law firm Maurice Blackburn Lawyers is calling for legislative duty of care, arguing that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter need to be responsible for users' safety and well-being.

Twitter has long been criticised for what many see as a failure to manage abuse. Photo: Getty.

"Cybersafety should be regulated in the same way that workplace safety is -- by imposing a duty of care on the major technology companies through robust legislation," said principal lawyer Josh Bornstein.

“It is well past time for the Federal Government to act."

Gorman said social media companies are "missing in action" on issues around cyberhate and online abuse.

"They've been bleating on about cyberhate since 2006. They say they're doing something, but they're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as the boat sinks."

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au