A Brief History of Female Political Figures Being Abused Online

27 Jul A Brief History of Female Political Figures Being Abused Online

Twitter is an excellent real time service for finding out what is happening right now. Mainly because of this, it has evolved into something of a social network for news, with journalists using it as an important source for finding out what public figures have to say.

But alongside this has come an ugly underbelly. Anyone can set up an account on Twitter anonymously, and with that comes the world of trolling. Look at the comments beneath almost any politician’s or national newspaper’s account, and you’ll almost certainly find something unsavoury, perhaps hate filled or even with threats of violence. Facebook also often suffers from the same problem.

Female political figures in Britain have suffered greatly from this trolling. While Twitter have assisted police in finding the people behind the threats, they seem powerless to stop such people making the threats in the first place. There are many clear examples where abuse has been reported on by national newspapers, and people have often targeted certain figures several times in separate incidents.

Taking time to list all such occurences in detail could easily run into an article of book sized lengths. Here are a few examples of recent happenings to illustrate the problem. It is, unfortunately, a much bigger problem that some of these better known incidents alone.

Stella Creasy vs. Wonga

One female politician who has been on the receiving ends of extreme abuse is Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy. While abuse likely started before 2012, it was in November that year that the first report of a Twitter troll targeting Creasy was reported.

Her vocal opposition to payday loan website Wonga led to a public attack, and a Guardian investigation found that an employee of the firm was using anonymous Twitter accounts to do so. One account called Creasy ‘mental’, ‘nuts’ and a ‘self-serving egomaniac’. While they were using a company computer, the troll was operating without Wonga’s knowledge and their identity was not revealed.

New Banknote Debate Leads to Abuse

In April 2013, the Bank of England announced that in 2016 it would release a new £5 note; Winston Churchill would replace prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the back of the money.

This would mean no women featured on any of Britain’s bank notes. Disappointed at the decision, journalist Caroline Criado-Perez began a campaign for the Bank of England to reconsider. Her campaign gained support from 35,000 petitioners and enough money for a legal challenge should the campaign be ignored.

Stella Creasy also leant her support, organising a letter of 46 MPs to the Prime Minister. The Bank of England were open to the discussion, and in July they announced that they would feature Jane Austen on the back of new £10 note, which was due to come out in 2017.

The campaign can be seen as a small victory for equality, but it’s big deal in some ways – legal tender is itself a form of media viewed by millions of people every day, and that a single English woman’s achievements wouldn’t be on one of the five banknotes is quite an oversight. There’s nothing particularly radical, or militantly feminist about this idea.

‘It’s All Just Satire’

But people on Twitter did not take lightly to the campaign. While trolling was building throughout July, it reached its feverish height after the Bank of England had made their announcement. Both Criado-Perez and Creasy were then subjected to rape threats, at rates of nearly fifty such tweets an hour, with the former tweeting,  “I actually can’t keep up with the screen-capping & reporting — rape threats thick and fast now. If anyone wants to report the tweets to Twitter.”

One of the tweets sent by troll Peter Nunn, read, “You better watch your back, I’m going to rape your arse at 8pm and put the video all over.” Nunn was later jailed for 18 weeks for a ‘campaign of hatred’ directed against Criado-Perez and Creasy, which took place from multiple accounts, even continuing when one was suspended.

In the dock, he said about his rape threats to Criado-Perez, ‘I realise now that rape threats aren’t a compliment. I said you could take it as a compliment you are beautiful.’ Alongside this warped thinking was the excuse common amongst Internet conspiracy theorists, fake news publishers and trolls alike – it was all, of course, just satire.

De-selection Threats After Syria Vote

And all of this in 2012 and 2013: Twitter was not yet even ten years old, but it clearly had a serious attitude problem. But for every Peter Nunn locked away, there were thousands who went unreported, and yet countless more who Twitter and even the police would give up on. The hordes of trolls across social media weren’t done with Stella Creasy yet either.

Even while deciding whether to go against Jeremy Corbyn and vote with the government on supporting military action in Syria in December 2015, she was subject to more online abuse. On the evening of the vote, she posted to Facebook:

‘its not really possible for me to keep up with the messages am getting on social media at present, but have just dipped in and seen some discussion about the protest march on Tuesday and also the abusive messages I have been receiving…’

She later told Channel 4 News that after the vote, she received ‘12,500 tweets within a couple of days – 2,500 in the first day alone.’ She also spotted a comment left by Asim Mahmood, who wrote,

‘In my opinion any Labour MP who supports the killing of innocents in this way should automatically go through a trigger ballot for reselection. Anyone want to word a motion to that effect?’

She responded: ‘Will continue to listen and reflect but want to be clear that one thing I will not do is be bullied by a sitting Walthamstow Labour councillor with the threat of deselection if I don’t do what he wants.’ This wasn’t just anonymous trolling, but pressure from councillors in her own party and constituency. In the event of the vote, when Creasy did vote in favour of military action, media reports of potential de-selection ran rampant.

The Anxiety from Receiving Online Abuse

Stella Creasy is quite a special case in UK politics for the number of separate incidents where she has been targeted by trolls.

But, unfortunately, she is far from alone as trolls persistently target women involved with politics. Such online trolling lurches from a deep sexism, and an anger that any woman can be uninhibited and strong in stating an opinion. But even if vile physical threats can be dismissed, it is still clear that they will cause harm – this does not have to be physical.

When public women receive thousands of such threats, this leads to deepening anxieties over how it could escalate. Creasy herself installed a panic button at her home, and she wrote in The Telegraph, ‘I can’t get the last year back or erase the inevitable personal impact of getting constant threats. Recently someone followed me from the tube to talk to me and I felt my heart in my mouth. Sadly and predictably this whole episode has made me more wary of strangers than I wish.’

Gina Miller vs. the British Government

A similar outcome lay in wait for Gina Miller, who challenged the authority of the British Government to invoke Article 50 and begin the nation’s formal withdrawal from the European Union.

In November 2016, the High Court of Justice ruled in favour of Miller’s challenge to make the invocation go before a parliamentary vote. In an article for The Mail on Sunday, Miller wrote ‘Yes we must have Brexit – but not by mob rule.’ Yet she had been on the receiving end of online mob attacks since coming to prominence for the challenge.

The typical complaints from Brexiteers remarked that the challenge was ‘undemocratic’ and that she was in it for her own interests as a hedge fund manager. But from there we depart into anonymous accusations of treason, and that Gina Miller should be hung, shot or gang-raped.

Viscount Jailed for Abuse

In January, Viscount Rhodri Colwyn Philips was arrested for three messages posted to Facebook between September and November. One read, ‘£5,000 for the first person to ‘accidentally’ run over this bloody troublesome first-generation immigrant.” He later added: ‘If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.’

Philips demanded to know why others accused of abusing Ms Miller were not in court, which is a fair point, given the thousands of accounts aiming abuse. But a thousand wrongs make no right and he was jailed for 12 weeks in July. Like Peter Nunn before him, the Viscount said his comments were ‘satire’.

In August, it was reported that Miller was afraid to leave her home because of the threat of acid attacks. This is simply not a normal state of affairs, and like Creasy before her, these anxieties are clearly fuelled by online abuse.

Social Media Vitriol

The failure of social media to convey the nuances of meaning, through having no body language, tone of voice and even stripping the context of the person who said it, means a likely destination of online debate is fuming circular vitriol.

We can see from television shows like Question Time, or even Prime Minister’s Questions, that it is very difficult to get people from different sides of the political spectrum to come to any agreement, and in some cases makes a valid point at all. On social media, this becomes nigh on impossible – a slanging match of points made in the illusion of real time, where the reaction of the other side delivers greater exasperation every time it arrives.

But beyond this lack of healthy debate, there also remains a sickening underbelly of anonymous trolls – many of whom just seem to enjoy the act of being abusive. The solution here seems to be to make people who sign up to social networks more accountable through having clear identities. For instance, you’re less likely to be a troll with a verified profile picture.

But this has Internet libertarians up in arms, because they believe identity should be protected. Meanwhile, the networks will do anything in the name of growth – so the more accounts, the better. In its current guise, it has become ugly.

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