GUEST POST: Digital safety and women in politics
This is the first in a series of blogs from the Spring student placements Engender hosted from the University of Strathclyde Applied Gender Studies and Research Methods course.
In this post, Yoke Baeyens explores abuse online in the UK and beyond – with a focus on the experiences of women politicians.
In January 2023, the First Minister of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, resigned from her role. In her speech announcing her resignation, she described the “brutality” of public life as a politician, specifically referring to it as “hostile” for female politicians, highlighting the role that social media plays in the abuse that women politicians receive.
"Social media provides a vehicle for the most awful abuse of women, misogyny, sexism and threats of violence for women who put their heads above the parapet." - Nicola Sturgeon.
Nevertheless, for politicians and others working public-facing jobs, social media is now a job requirement. It allows them to have a connection and communicate with the public, but it also opens them up to targeted online abuse. Women politicians are victims of trolling, identity-based hate speech, threats of violence, doxxing and sexual harassment. It’s important to recognise that this abuse is not only a gender-based issue. An intersectional lens allows us to see that minoritised women experience amplified abuse, compounded by facets of their identity such as race, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.
The impacts of the online abuse female politicians face are multi-varied and far-reaching, affecting not only the individual receiving the abuse but the democratic process and wider society. It can have a profound psychological effect on the target of the harassment. In an Amnesty International poll on British and American women who experienced harassment via social media, 55%-67% reported a diminished ability to focus on everyday tasks and an increase in stress, anxiety, panic attacks and a feeling of apprehension when thinking about social media or receiving social media notifications. Female politicians who received online abuse have also reported decreased decision-making abilities, self-confidence and a sense of humiliation and powerlessness. These effects are felt across public-facing jobs, including journalism and academia, with women journalists stating that online abuse limits opportunities for women and causes a deterioration of the trust in media reporting.
Despite the fact that the abuse and harassment discussed above occurs online, it can have very real impacts on the feelings of safety and actual safety of female politicians. In the Amnesty poll, 41% of women said the online experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened. In the wake of Sturgeon’s resignation, Scottish women politicians have echoed this: it has become normalised to report threats to the police and even have panic buttons in their homes.
"As a queer woman, I definitely get it, and there's definitely extra levels to it. The Sad reality is I think we've become inured to it." - SNP MP Hannah Bardell.
Online violence and offline physical violence do not exist in a vacuum but a continuum of violence which can lead to physical harm and death. The murder of MP Jo Cox remains present in the minds of many women politicians as a reminder of the very real consequences of the online threats.
A further impact of online violence and harassment is the silencing effect it has on the women who experience it. As a result of the harassment, women can change the way they engage with social media, limiting their interactions, self-censoring the content they post and even leaving social media altogether in an attempt to limit the abuse they face. Female politicians thus lose the platforms that should allow them to have their voices heard and amplified, causing them to change their campaign activities in ways that negatively impact their opportunities to gain office (see Collignon and Rüdig’s work on increasing the cost of female representation for more detail). This silencing fundamentally disrupts the political process.
The silencing effect is a human rights issue. Women have a right to freedom of expression and opinion and to participate in public life without being discriminated against, which unchecked online violence infringes upon. Many female politicians have expressed concern that this will prevent young women from venturing into politics, though there is evidence that the rise in online abuse is already forcing women out.
"Specific action must be taken to protect women MPs and candidates. Without such action, an entire generation of women could be deterred from entering parliament." - Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Commons women and equalities committee.
Concrete steps need to be taken to ensure women politicians’ safety and safeguard their human rights. Currently, women are forced to bear the responsibility of their online experience, including navigating online violence. Social media platforms need to be held more accountable and regulate content, something that is being tackled by the upcoming Online Safety Bill. On Twitter, progress was being made, but the BBC has confirmed that the problem is getting worse, not better. Following the Twitter takeover by Elon Musk, reporter Marianna Spring has experienced a rise in misogynistic online hate, and there has been a 69% increase in newly made accounts that follow misogynistic and abusive profiles.
Putting more responsibility on social media platforms can be a solution that works alongside engaging the Equality Act in conjunction with Health and Safety laws. This solution which has been researched by Claire Kish, proposes that if women need to use these platforms to do their jobs, the responsibility of their safety falls on the employer.
While the UK government has shown no interest in incorporating Conventions on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Scottish government has committed to this bill. With new legal routes being explored and put in place, this indicates a positive shift in government support of women’s rights and points to the possibility of much-needed change in the future.
Engender occasionally works with students as part of their placement requirements for university or college courses - this allows students to work with Engender on specific areas of our work for women's equality. Student blogs form part of their course assessment, and they do not receive payment from Engender.
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