The approach of a rare December election in the UK has many campaigners feeling chills. What misery awaits them on the dark, cold streets as they try to convince voters to support their party? My preliminary research reveals that the women who bid for political office over the next six weeks have more to worry about than sore feet and aggressive dogs.
The last time the UK held an election in December, in 1923, eight women were elected. And while many more than eight will be running in 2019, several existing MPs have announced that they won’t be back. Conservatives Nicky Morgan and Caroline Spelman and former Conservative Heidi Allen are among the 18 women to announce that they won’t be standing again on December 12. All three mentioned their experience of online abuse as a significant reason for their decision.
Women MPs have been trying to highlight this problem for some time. Former Conservative and now independent MP Anna Soubry has spoken out about receiving death threats and repeatedly films the abuse she receives outside parliament. Luciana Berger, who quit the Labour Party and is now standing as a Liberal Democrat MP in London’s Finchley and Golders Green, has said that she will not campaign alone at night in this election.
My investigation indicates that the problem has worsened since the 2017 election. My analysis is one of the first to explore the sheer scale of online abuse received by women in public life.
I examined the Twitter feeds of all UK women MPs over an 11-day period. I collected 317,258 unique tweets (no retweets) sent to women parliamentarians and gathered 5,275 tweets containing the most commonly found abusive terms. When retweets of abuse were included, the sample rose to over a million.
My analysis reveals that Theresa May, who was prime minister at the time of the study, was sent the largest number of tweets (2,152, or 60% of the total). Others receiving the highest number of abusive tweets were Soubry and Labour MP Stella Creasy. An overwhelming majority of the tweets were misogynistic, including obscene and sexist language.
All the tweets contained foul language, much of it extreme. Phrases such as “clueless”, “stupid” and “thick” appeared more than 150 times. There were 290 tweets criticising an MP’s looks, including the labelling of senior parliamentarians as “ugly” or “old hags”, or as having “nice tits, shame about the face”. This constant focus on women’s appearance is objectifying and discredits the contribution women make to their professions. This is not a problem faced by most men doing the same job. Most worryingly, there were 23 threats of physical or sexual violence, some very graphic.
The personal consequences of online abuse include fear, embarrassment, humiliation and anger; all of which could end up silencing women. Those on the receiving end of abuse often fear for the welfare of their loved ones. This is of particular concern for MPs, since their job that often requires them to live away from home during the week.
My analysis also reveals a considerable spike in the number of abusive tweets sent whenever a female MP is prominent in the media, suggesting that as a woman’s profile increases, so too will the risk she faces.
Rather than being uncommon, these attacks make up a large percentage of a woman MP’s daily social media conversation. My study shows that the tweets sent to women MPs are not a demonstration of passionate debate, or an intrinsic part of the “rough and tumble” of political life, but instead contain illegal threats of rape and violence that warrant prosecution.
The vicious slurs and physical threats that occur on a daily basis are more than anyone should have to tolerate, and would be roundly condemned if they took place in the street or at a public meeting. If MPs like Berger feel that they have to restrict their movements in order to protect themselves, can they even compete fairly with male candidates over the next six weeks?
Criminal justice institutions and social media companies must respond more robustly to online abuse, as the response from the police to online threats of gender-based violence is often too little, too late. Penalties for these attacks need to be substantially reinforced, too.
A failure to act risks the continued involvement of women in public life, who, as we have witnessed, are likely to resign from elected office; or who may choose not to serve at all, in order to avoid the danger posed to them and their families.