Following the intense election campaign of 2017, Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott spoke out about the racist and misogynistic abuse she received online.
Abbott revealed that she was subject to a litany of abuse on Twitter. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, she described the comments she received as “characteristically racist and sexist”.
Abbott’s experiences are not just depressing on a personal level – they pose a threat to democracy.
The BBC recently reported that a huge number of women MPs are experiencing abuse on social media. The problem was so bad during the 2017 election, with several MPs making complaints to the government, that Number 10 asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the abuse of MPs during election campaigns.
In Australia, the former prime minister Julia Gillard was subjected to twice as many abusive online comments as her Labor party rival Kevin Rudd between 2010 and 2014. Many of these statements were of a sexual nature.
Similarly, in the Democratic presidential primaries in the US, Hillary Clinton received almost twice as many abusive comments as her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.
These types of comments have started to become the norm for women politicians. Gillard has said:
As a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sicking dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.
With so many people subject to online abuse, many are choosing to withdraw themselves from social media. In fact, a campaigner I recently interviewed about the online abuse she received was advised by the police to shut down her social media accounts.
But advising a woman to remove her online presence if she doesn’t want to be abused is akin to telling a woman that she needs to behave a certain way if she doesn’t want to be raped.
Rather than engaging in victim blaming, we should be tackling the behaviour of abusers. We need to be sending stronger messages to individuals that online abuse will not be tolerated. A full, in-depth inquiry is needed to establish if social media companies need to take more responsibly for what is posted on their platforms; or, if in fact, we need more specific legislation to govern social media. The likelihood is that we are now at a point where the law itself needs changing.
Who’d be a woman politician?
Online abuse may be seen as an everyday part of being a politician, but it’s a threat to democracy. Constant abuse aimed at politicians, especially female politicians, threatens to reduce the plurality of voices essential for a modern democracy. As conservative MP Sarah Wollaston recently said, online abuse is “designed to intimidate”. If that intimidation is successful, women will be dissuaded from becoming politicians. Already, only 23.3% of politicians worldwide are women.
Abbott has said:
Other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly let alone getting involved in political activity.
If we want to live in a world of true equality, we need to start tackling online abuse. Simply concluding that such abuse is an everyday part of life is clearly a threat to the political system.