By Michelle Devane, PA
The North’s leaders have recounted the “vile” abuse they have experienced at the hands of online trolls, and called on social media giants to tackle the issue on their platforms.
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said women in politics have to deal with constant misogyny and abuse.
They made the comments at a virtual event about women in leadership by Queen’s University in Belfast.
Mrs Foster said that “one of the biggest obstacles” for women in public life is “constant social media trolling”.
The DUP leader said: “The threats and lies do take their toll, not just on you but those around you.”
Online harassment of women is not acceptable, she added.
There must be a verification process where the platforms at least know who really owns the account.
“When anyone steps into the public square and seeks to advance their ideas, there will be debate and that is quite legitimate,” Mrs Foster said.
“It is perfectly acceptable for some else around the table to say, ‘I don’t like that idea and here’s why’.
“What is not acceptable is for people around the table to mark out an opponent and then enlist the services of an anonymous online lynch-mob to systematically target and harass women about their relationship status, their children, their partner, their appearance and the list goes on.”
She told the event social media companies need to recognise their responsibilities to women in public life.
“The anonymity of social media gives people a sense of invincibility. I want to tackle that,” she said.
“There must be a verification process where the platforms at least know who really owns the account.
“I want the social media companies to recognise their responsibilities to women in public life.
“Whether it is Google, Facebook, Tiktok, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, they can’t just step back as the publisher and wash their hands of the problem.”
Mrs Foster also said that since she announced she was stepping down as First Minister, many people have asked her what she will do next.
“I’m not sure at the moment but with every fibre in my being I will work to ensure that the obstacles to women in public life are removed by the roots,” she told the conference.
Ms O’Neill said there was a constant attempt to belittle women in politics and that women are “constantly swimming upstream against a constant undercurrent of misogyny and abuse”.
Misogyny has been a constant, malignant presence in my political leadership
The Sinn Féin politician described some of the commentary around women in political leadership as “reprehensible”.
“Misogyny has been a constant, malignant presence in my political leadership,” Ms O’Neill said.
“Derogatory comments about my appearance. Threats of physical and sexual violence. Death threats. Because I have dared to put myself out there, to lead, to represent and make my voice heard.
“And I am by no means alone in that. Every day I see examples of vile abuse against women. And I see the devastation it causes in people’s lives.”
She said gender equality “isn’t an option; it’s a human right” and that barriers to women’s participation and progression in all parts of society needed to be removed.