Female MPs speak out about hate received

Safya Khan-Ruf - 20 07 17

With a record 208 women in the Commons after the 2017 General Election, female political representation has never been so high in the UK. But these MPs have increasingly been speaking out over the abuse and intimidation they face on a daily basis.

Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has been very open about the daily sexist and racist abuse she receives, mostly online. She says she has received “rape threats, death threats, and am referred to routinely as a bitch and/or nigger, and am sent horrible images on Twitter.”

The death threats include an EDL-affiliated account with the tag “burn Diane Abbott”, she says.

Diane Abbott courtesy of Paul NUK/Flickr

Earlier this year, after the death of MP Jo Cox at the hands of a right-wing extremist, two thirds of female MPs who took part in a BBC survey said they felt “unsafe” and a third admitted they had considered quitting because of the abuse. Many are worried the abuse will put women off seeking positions in politics.

Elections produce especially hostile environments for MPs – of both sexes. Last week, MPs gathered during an hour-long debate in Westminster Hall and detailed the racist abuse, antisemitism, and death threats from supporters of rival parties on social media, as well as physical threats they have received during the 2017 election.

During the debate, Abbott gave examples of the offensive messages she had to endure every day.

“I’ve had rape threats [and have been] described as a pathetic, useless, fat, black, piece of s**t, ugly, fat, black b***h,” she said.

Conservative MP Simon Hart also mentioned cases of candidates having swastikas carved into election posters and their offices being urinated on.

Labour MP Paula Sheriff said the 2017 election was the worst yet, but that this abuse had been going on for years. She said: “It is not about a particular party or particular faction. It is about the degradation of political discourse online.”

The hate directed towards MPs reached such a level in the last election that Prime Minister Theresa May asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the abuse of MPs during election campaigns.

“I’ve had rape threats [and have been] described as a pathetic, useless, fat, black, piece of s**t, ugly, fat, black b***h” – Diane Abbott 
Not just MPs

MPs however, are not the only public figures receiving massive amounts of online hate.

Earlier this month, senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper condemned the“vitriolic abuse” from all sides targeting the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.

Nothing justifies the personal vitriol, or the misogyny,” she said. The MP warned that the Donald Trump-approach to politics was “normalising hatred” and the problem was not confined to the right wing.

Supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have been criticised for abusing rival politicians online and last year 45 female MPs sent an open letter to Corbyn, criticising his response to the intimidation as “inadequate”.

Pushing Back

The role of the Internet in much of the abuse has made it difficult to tackle the hate, but some abusers have been caught.

Luciana Berger, Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree was subjected to repeated antisemitic and misogynistic abuse online by National Action’s Garron Helm, who was jailed for four weeks for his actions. Joshua Bonehill-Paine, 24, who wrote five hate-filled blogs about Berger, calling her a “dominatrix” and “an evil money-grabber” with a “deep-rooted hatred of men”, was jailed for two years after a trial at the Old Bailey.

Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, also received repeated hate. Peter Nunn, 33, was jailed for 18 weeks in 2014 after he sent Creasy abusive tweets following her support for a successful campaign to put an image of Jane Austen on the £10 note. He retweeted threatening posts about rape to the MP and branded her a “witch”.

But the huge volume of online hatred and anonymised nature of the haters means most suffer no consequences. Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, said in 2016 that Internet trolls sent her more than 600 rape messages in one night.

Courtesy of Glasgow School of Arts/Flickr

Lord Bew, who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life and will lead the inquiry on political intimidation, told BBC Radio 4‘s Westminster Hour that British politics was at a “dangerous moment” and that the level of vitriol might deter people from running for office.

“We cannot afford to lose people of quality in our public life and we may be approaching a tipping point,” he said. He added that the “threat culture” was reminiscent of the troubles in Northern Ireland, which he had experienced first hand.

According to The Telegraph, Facebook and Twitter bosses will be ordered to give evidence amid claims they have failed to do enough against abusive messages. The tech giants have been under increasing pressure in Europe as several governments grapple with the issue of online hatred. The companies will also be asked to look at ways to prevent online abusers from using anonymous accounts to attack politicians.

Meanwhile, Labour’s Harriet Harman, the longest-serving female MP, has called on cross party unity to prevent the abuse of female MPs. She told The Guardian that Labour women should speak out against any abuse and intimidation aimed at female Conservative MPs, warning that “a misogynistic attack on one woman is a misogynistic attack on all women.”

Changing the landscape

But while MPs acknowledge the rise of social media in facilitating abuse, many disagree over the causes and motivations.

“The elephant in the room here is it is being motivated by the language of some of our political leaders when they accuse people of one political side of murder when they dehumanise them,” former Tory minister Andrew Percy said.

There appears to be little recourse for those targeted by large amounts of hate today. One campaigner described how the police advised her to shut down her social media account and remove her online presence because of the abuse directed towards her – highlighting how inadequate the current system in place is.

The legislation in the UK on malicious communications was last amended in 2003 and Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell MAMA, told HOPE not hate the existing laws are not equipped to handle the changed online landscape the UK is faced with today.

Unfortunately, online abuse has become part of everyday life in the progressively more connected yet divided era of Trump and Brexit. The inquiry into the issue is likely to unearth a multitude of solutions from putting the onus on tech giants to upping the severity of the punishment for those caught spewing hate.

It bears reminding that a plurality of voices is critical for a modern democracy and the constant hate aimed at politicians, especially female politicians, threatens that.


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