Female protesters posting support for the pro-democracy movement said they have experienced a slew of sexist online attacks in response
Rape threats, body-shaming and doctored photos: women supporting the anti-government protests in Hong Kong say they are being harassed online by suspected pro-Beijing trolls.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the financial hub's streets week after week in the biggest challenge to China's rule of the semi-autonomous city for decades.
But female protesters posting support for the pro-democracy movement said they have experienced a slew of sexist online attacks in response.
"They are not attacking my views or anything, they just attack me because I am female," said Hong Kong student Mickey Leung Ho Wun.
The 17-year-old discovered a doctored picture of her at a pro-democracy rally was being spread on Facebook via a page supporting the city's police.
In the original, Wun is standing next to a banner reading 'I am a secondary school student' but in the altered version, the sign reads 'I am not wearing any underwear.'
"These are Hong Kong people who are pro-Beijing," Wun speculated of the users sharing the picture.
Another young female protester, Ka Yau Ho, said a photograph shared online of her being detained by the police during a rally was altered so it appeared her nipples were showing.
Celebrity Hong Kong singer turned activist Denise Ho said on Facebook the aim of the online attacks against her was to "ignore her will, ignore her vision, focus on her exterior and dress, and then demonise."
These women said they suspected pro-Beijing trolls were behind the sexist abuse, as the majority of messages were in simplified Chinese -- predominantly used in mainland China.
They added that the abuse has intensified since Beijing ramped up its hardline rhetoric over the protests.
On Wednesday evening, thousands rallied against alleged police sexual violence, holding aloft purple lights in solidarity with abuse victims.
Attendees shared the #ProtestToo hashtag, a play on 2017's global #MeToo movement that exposed sexual assault and harassment in high-profile industries -- and helped improve attitudes towards abuse survivors.
But women at the protest told AFP they had stopped posting online as the rhetoric against the protesters increased.
A spokesperson for Hong Kong's Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women said online harassment was "a weapon to harm women," adding that it was linked to outdated social norms and cultural values.
- 'Constant barrage' -
Social media has been a key battleground for both sides during the protests.
Earlier this month tech giants Twitter and Facebook said they had suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts emanating from China, aimed at undercutting the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protest movement.
Twitter said it had shut down a further 200,000 accounts before they could inflict any damage.
Laurel Chor, 29, said as a female reporter covering the protests in Hong Kong she had received a "constant barrage" of abuse in her comments and Instagram DMs.
"They were using words like whore or prostitute and bitch," she said.
A Twitter post which called on people to shun a list of female Asian journalists -- including Chor -- was indicative of how "women do get disproportionately targeted and it is not only gendered but also racial," she said.
Similarly, journalist Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, born in mainland China but writing about the protests from Australia, said her Twitter account was swamped by negative comments, including rape threats.
"The insults that were towards me they were a really weird combination of nasty nationalism, sexism, and racism," she said. "I felt physically sick."
It is not only pro-democracy demonstrators who have endured abusive gendered attacks.
Photographs of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, have been superimposed onto scantily-clad models' bodies and pasted on walls in the city.
Meanwhile, the wives of a number of serving police officers were identified by Telegram users who created a poll on the encrypted messaging service to vote on which wife they would rather "sleep with", a senior police source said.
A Twitter spokesperson told AFP that "abuse, harassment and hateful conduct have no place on our service".
Neither Instagram nor Facebook immediately responded to comment but Instagram confirmed they were actively investigating the issue.