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Christina Julios

May 17th, 2023

Ignoring online abuse of women MPs has dire consequences

0 comments | 13 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Christina Julios

May 17th, 2023

Ignoring online abuse of women MPs has dire consequences

0 comments | 13 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Women MPs are exposed to daily online harassment, and social media platforms provide unlimited scope for anonymous, hostile and aggressive behaviour to be targeted at them. As the unprecedented cyber abuse of female MPs is known to be detrimental to their personal and professional lives, today’s toxic virtual environment poses a real risk to the future of women in politics, argues Christina Julios.

Online abuse of Members of Parliament is nothing new. An occupational hazard for any public figure, elected representatives have long been targets of attacks and derision from the public. With the advent of mainstream social media, however, there has been an exponential growth of cyber abuse, which has also become more extreme and normalised.

Nowadays, parliamentarians can expect to have insults hurled at them online and be subjected to different forms of intimidation as well as cyber bullying and trolling. Within the context of a male-dominated legislature and wider patriarchal culture in society, the online abuse of women MPs in particular is not only rife, but also underpinned by deeply misogynistic attitudes. As a result, female politicians are especially vulnerable to different forms of gender-based violence in cyberspace. These typically range from sexist and derogatory comments to hate speech, cyber stalking, body shaming, and rape and death threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath accelerated this upward trend as people found themselves spending more time online. This has contributed, in turn, to an increase in what the European Institute for Gender Equality describes as cyber-violence against women and girls (CVAWG).

The scale of online abuse

The full impact of online abuse on women MPs is still not fully understood. This is partly due to a scarcity of data and gaps in existing evidence, often resulting in underestimation of the extent of the problem. Global statistics from The Economist Intelligence Unit, for instance, suggests that 38 per cent of women have experienced online violence, while 65 per cent know other women who have been targeted, and 85 per cent witnessed online violence against other women.

Such high rates of gendered online abuse are consistent with the experiences of female politicians. Research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on online abuse of women parliamentarians worldwide found that 81.8 per cent of those surveyed in 39 countries had been subjected to various forms of psychological violence, including 65.5 per cent targeted with “humiliating sexual or sexist remarks”, 41.8 per cent having “Extremely humiliating or sexually charged images” of themselves spread through social media, and 44.4 per cent being threatened with “death, rape, beatings or abduction”.

Within the UK context, studies show high levels of online abuse directed at women MPs, including hateful and abusive language along with threats to their lives and safety. Minoritised women furthermore experience specific types of cyber harassment by virtue of their personal characteristics such as gender, age and ethnicity. The 2017 general election provides a case in point. Collignon and Rüdig’s analysis of the 2017 ballot shows that 38 per cent of candidates (or 4 in every 10) experienced “at least one type of harassment”, with women and young candidates being more likely to be targets.

These findings are in line with research by Amnesty International tracking Twitter abuse of women MPs during the 2017 election. It found that although online abuse cuts across the political spectrum, minority ethnic female MPs still received 35 per cent more of it than their white counterparts. Significantly, in the run up to the election, nearly half of all abusive tweets (45.14 per cent) against those surveyed were directed to one particular politician: Diane Abbott MP, the first Black woman elected to parliament three decades earlier. She has described facing online abuse that is both “highly racialised” and “gendered” because “people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I’m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a black politician”.

How microaggressions add up

Public interest in online abuse of women MPs tends to focus on the most serious cases reported in the media, whereas more subtle forms of threatening and offensive behaviour often go unnoticed. Yet, Harmer and Southern’s recent evaluation of tweets sent to Westminster female MPs reveals that “digital microaggressions” can be as harmful to democratic participation as more direct forms of abuse. These everyday low-levels of “othering and discrimination” frequently target multiple facets of female MPs’ identities, questioning their authority and ability to do their job. Digital microaggressions thus provide a continuous “background noise” of sexism, racism and prejudice detrimental to women’s parliamentary work.

A recent evaluation of tweets sent to Westminster female MPs reveals that “digital microaggressions” can be as harmful to democratic participation as more direct forms of abuse.

In what has effectively become a hostile environment for female voices, these menacing virtual acts are understood as online manifestations of conventional violence against women. Krook’s seminal book Violence against Women in Politics examines gender violence as a “continuum” of behaviour that extends beyond narrow definitions of physical and related acts of aggression. Instead, it includes “psychological and semiotic” violence, whereby words and images are aimed at women to prevent them from participating in politics.

The cost of online abuse

In parliament, where the prevalence of sexual harassment and bullying is well documented, women MPs consistently describe it as a “very masculine environment” and a “really tough place for women to work”. The additional toll of constant online harassment and threats may trigger stress, anxiety and depression as well as adversely affecting pre-existing mental health conditions. A recent report by the Fawcett Society titled A House for Everyone: A Case for Modernising Parliament reveals that 93 per cent of women (and 76 per cent of men) feel online abuse or harassment impacts negatively on their experiences of being a parliamentarian.

Concerned about their safety, female MPs in particular describe undertaking various measures to protect themselves, including enhanced home security, discontinuing face-to-face constituency surgeries, keeping travelling arrangements confidential and taking out restraining orders. In addition, 73 per cent of female MPs (and 51 per cent of men) are self-censoring and opting out of speaking on social media about certain issues due to its toxic atmosphere. Others are simply leaving their jobs.

This is hardly surprising given the extreme levels of cyber violence now faced by our elected representatives as illustrated by some high-profile cases of female MPs including: Nicky Morgan and Heidi Allen receiving death threats, Rosie Cooper being the target of murder plots, Luciana Berger, who has ‘several people in prison for threats to her and her family’, and Jess Phillips barraged with over “600 rape threats in a single night”. Such levels of cyber violence are part of a broader and increasingly partisan political climate that can present real dangers to MPs in their everyday lives.

Old problems, new solutions?

Many remedial measures to tackle online abuse of women MPs have been suggested by policy-makers, grassroots organisations and wider stakeholders. One key initiative seeks to amend the Online Safety Bill to better address the endemic online abuse of women, including MPs and members of marginalised groups, as well as strengthening measures to protect their safety in cyberspace. There are also widespread calls for increasing the accountability of tech companies to engage in best practice and implement robust mechanisms to safeguard females’ presence and voices in social media. In spite of over 30 years of progress in cyberspace, even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee recognises that “The web is not working for women and girls”.

Even the inventor of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee recognises that “The web is not working for women and girls”.

Similarly, boosting the capabilities of law enforcement agencies and the Electoral Commission is needed to tackle the scale of CVAWG and its impact on women MPs, including imposing legal sanctions against perpetrators. Finally, developing further research and data collection on the online abuse of women MPs is crucial in order to close the current knowledge gap and allow for robust evidence to inform public policy.

It is ironic that in the midst of the digital age, women are finding it more difficult to become MPs than their predecessors did. The combination of a prevalent misogynistic culture, an increasingly polarised political landscape and unprecedented online abuse is making it harder for women to pursue a career in politics or sustain one for long. Faced with such a toxic and hostile environment, seasoned elected representatives are opting to keep silent, to limit their online presence, to reduce their engagement with the public or to leave politics altogether. Likewise, new and diverse female talent is being discouraged from entering the political arena, particularly members of minority groups. Unless the online plight of women MPs is taken seriously, the consequences for democracy, gender equality, female representation and women’s safety will certainly be dire.

This post draws on analysis contained in the author’s latest book, Sexual Harassment in the UK Parliament: Lessons from the #MeToo Era  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Firmbee Com via Unsplash.

About the author


Christina Julios

Christina Julios is Honorary Associate and Assoc. Lecturer at the Open University. Her latest book, Sexual Harassment in the UK Parliament: Lessons from the #MeToo Era, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022.

Posted In: Gender and Equality | Parliament | Society and Culture
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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.