It is long established that people standing for office and participating in politics have to anticipate a higher level of public scrutiny than the general population. A recent review from the Independent Committee for Standards on Public Life indicates that during lthe ast General Election in the UK, political candidates had to endure threats and intimidation far beyond the scope of “scrutiny”.
It also indicates that female politicians are disproportionately targets of intimidation, as well as those from black, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBT candidates.
The review relies on a range of evidence, including the recent findings of Amnesty International UK, showing that black and Asian female politicians face disproportionate amount of online abuse. In a recent survey by the BBC Radio 5, 64% of the 113 MPs participating believed female politicians were subject to more abuse than male.
Reviewing the statistics in the global context, they are far from unique. A 2016 study amongst female lawmakers, drew answers from over 500 female politicians from 107 countries. Nearly 50% of the respondents had received “insulting or threatening comments about women’s ability and/or role” in the context of their profession.
Research from both sides of the Atlantic indicate that women in general are faced with online abuse and harassment rooted in their gender, not only within the political sphere. The Danish Institute for Human Rights revealed that due to the brutality on social media half of Danes refrain from participating in public debate online. A public debate that loses half of its participants will quickly loose the “democratic” pronoun.
A concern for the democratic interest is a core issue in the Independent Committee for Standards on Public Life review. It recommends social media platforms should be held liable for user generated abuse towards candidates and politicians. Similar calls have been issued to the social media platforms regarding extremism and hate speech.
Despite not having dealt with the matter in the context of social media platforms, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found that it is not in breach with the freedom of expression under Article 10 to hold internet media platforms liable for user generated hate speech and incitement to violence. It has further stated that the scope of the distribution and the commercial incentive of the platform could play a role in the assessment of their possible responsibility.
The ECtHR has in a number of findings shaped the borders between the freedom of expression and hate speech, effectively marking that not all speech in equal under the Convention system. Simply put, speech that undermines the democratic values that the Convention is built to protect, does not enjoy its protection.
In light of the expanding role of social media in modern day society, the call for its increased responsibility is understandable. However, there is another democratic element to this approach. The democratically elected institutions are still the appropriate body to set the law of the land, and are those that carry the obligations set out in human rights conventions. Demanding that social media regulate their platforms with terms and conditions leaves open the question; what about the law?
Under the current UK legislation, hate crimes are crimes in which a victim has been targeted as a result of their race, sexuality or disability, but not because of gender. Twitter recently updated its hate speech policy generally mirroring the UK hate crime legislation, building on the legal framework that does not address sexism as hate speech. Why should the platforms regulate in order to protect female politicians when the legislation does not? As shown in a recent study from Gothenburg University, UK is not the only country that fails to provide legal response to the gendered nature of online abuse.
Recently, the University of Sussex organised a seminar about gender and hate in the online sphere, bringing together researchers and domestic and international stakeholders engaged in the topic. The success of the Nottinghamshire police district policy to address sexist speech under the current hate crime legislation was discussed as a possible best practice. There are indications that other police districts in the UK might take up the same approach.
The outcome suggested that both policy responses as well as further research is needed in order to meet the reality of online abuse towards women. In terms of policy, it was suggested that:
- Legislators redefine the scope of hate speech legislation to include gender as a protected characteristic.
- Police and the judicial system build on the experience of Nottinghamshire police by approaching misogyny as a form of hate speech and introduce training for staff and police officers.
- Social media platforms ensure their terms and conditions address the gendered reality of online abuse and have clear reporting mechanisms in place for those faced with sexism and gendered hate online.
With regards to research areas, it was found that further evidence is needed to examine:
- Impact of online misogyny, both on those affected and the bystander effect
- The background of perpetrators in order to understand where the behaviour stems from.
The democratic process is important and fragile. Social media has severely impacted the way politicians engage with their voters, as it has in a number of fields of communication. It is essential to ensure that political participation will not diminish and the review of the Independent Committee for Standards on Public Life is an important contribution that needs response. Such a response should not to overlook the gendered aspect of online abuse against female politicians.
In December 2018, a year from now, the UK will celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage. How timely if by that time, women could stand for election without facing abuse due to their gender.
María Rún Bjarnadóttir, is a Doctoral Researcher in Law at the University of Sussex.
 Despite the research referred to does not explicitly do so, the term female will for the context of this piece be used in an inclusive manner, for both cis and transgender women. Further, this should not be read as diminishing the experience of cis or transgender women.