Colette Sheridan: Keyboard warriors spewing venom at female politicians stink

More needs to be done to tackle online abuse of women in politics, so says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Keyboard warriors spewing venom at female politicians stink

Faceless and often nameless people can pour abuse on female politicians online with no consequences

ONLY 9% of female politicians said they would consider reporting online abuse to the gardaí or social media companies.

Yet, according to an ongoing NUI Galway study of female politicians, 96% of them said they had received hate mail and hostile messages online, with foul language or inappropriate comments about their appearance and intelligence.

Senator Regina Doherty has spoken of receiving threats that her house with her four children in it was going to be burnt down.

The findings come as the Irish Examiner recently revealed that a significant proportion of sitting female TDs and senators said they had suffered sexual harassment and online trolling.

Something is rotten in the state of politics.

Last week, at a National Women’s Council (NWC) and European Parliament webinar dealing with online harassment, there was a call for social media companies to proactively tackle online abuse of women in politics.

Politicians are an easy target, and female politicians even more so. As the director of NWC, Orla O’Connor, said: “We know that women in politics are much more likely to experience serious and unrelenting online abuse just for the fact that they are a woman speaking out.

“For women from minority backgrounds, sexist abuse is often compounded by issues such as racism and homophobia.”

While the abuse documented in the study — including a threat of an acid attack and the throwing of faeces at a female politician in a public park —has a serious impact on the women and their staff who are monitoring the social media accounts, it also has wider implications for democracy.

It results in fewer women running for political office for fear of being abused and harassed online. There, is, says Ms O’Connor, “no place for abuse and personal threats in a democratic debate”.

As Tom Felle, a former journalist who is head of journalism and communications at NUI Galway, said at the webinar, 20% of female politicians in the survey had considered quitting politics.

“That figure is much higher among local politicians where the stress seems to be quite significantly higher,” he added.

Female politicians, said Mr Felle, often felt worried, stressed and harassed “and have expressed concerns about their own mental health as a result of social media and online abuse”.

The reason that so few female politicians report the abuse is because they have concerns about being portrayed as victims.

They’re also concerned about public reaction to going public with their negative experiences and how it might affect their engagement with constituents.

Three respondents from the survey of 69 female politicians said they had reported abuse to the gardaí or social media companies. They said they found it difficult to have their threats taken seriously.

Ireland is not alone when it comes to tormenting female politicians. It is, said Mr Felle, increasing in the U.S, the UK, France, Australia and other countries. MEPs reported almost daily online media abuse, according to the European ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly.

In the three-week period leading up to the 2017 UK general election, all female MPs in the House of Commons received abusive tweets, totalling 25,688 messages.

This, said Mr Felle, “is going to have a chilling effect on women entering politics and on sustaining their careers in politics.”

A decade of populism, he said, has threatened democracy across the world.

There is a crying need to call out abuse for what it is. Hiding behind a veil of anonymity, “armies of keyboard warriors launch missiles with venomous intent.”

But it should be remembered that the threat of physical or sexual violence “is a crime. Those responsible should face the full rigours of the law”.

Also, the platforms or the hosts of the abuse also need to face up to their responsibilities.

When they want to, social media companies can react quickly — when it suits them. But on the issue of trolling and threatening, they simply haven’t stepped up to the plate.

Mr Felle says that on a cynical note, interaction that engages audiences on social media, no matter how appalling, is, for them, time spent on the platforms that they can monetise.

The problem is that social media companies have refused to even countenance considering themselves publishers. “But I would argue that it’s time for them to be held criminally responsible for content that’s posted on their sites or platforms.”

Mr Felle says that fines running into the millions, for failing to act against hate speech and threats of physical and sexual violence. “are the only way I believe that these companies will take their responsibilities seriously.”

In other words, hit them in their pockets seeing as basic morality fails to trouble these people.

There is also a need for more support for female politicians. If the issue of online abuse continues, young women will be turned off political life.

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