How online abuse is politically hijacked

All online abuse is unacceptable. The principal victims of online abuse are women. I have female friends who have turned down television appearances because men will bombard them on social media with sickening misogynistic abuse about how they look. Neither is such abuse simply the preserve of right-wing men. I once wrote a column denouncing sexist abuse from left-wing twitter accounts directed at Louise Mensch. I should say I have nothing but contempt for Louise Mensch’s opinions or her approach to political debate, such as it is. But misogynistic abuse has to be called out for what it is, whoever it is directed at, and whoever is responsible for it. There is a certain type of man — whatever their political persuasion — who cannot stand women with opinions, and believe those who express them are fair game.

More generally, women of colour face particular abuse. It is unlikely there is any British politician who as great a victim of online abuse as Diane Abbott, both in terms of intensity and how sustained it is.

Yesterday, I shared my own experience of online abuse. Every day, I get bombarded with abuse, often of a violently homophobic nature. I searched through some of these profiles for evidence that they supported the Conservative Party. Here they are again.

My reasons for sharing this were not to attract pity: as I’ve said, this is a daily experience which I rarely talk about. My reasons for sharing the abuse was because there is a national debate about online abuse, but it is almost exclusively being portrayed as a left-wing phenomenon. There is practically no scrutiny whatsoever of Tory supporters or right-wingers more generally using Twitter to viciously abuse their opponents. It is barely even on the national radar.

Take yesterday’s Daily Mail. The Daily Mail is a vicious newspaper which relentlessly stirs up hatred in a way that directly impacts people’s lives, which I’ll come on to. Online abuse is reduced to ‘hard-left bullying’. A debate on BBC2’s Daily Politics — somewhat shockingly — suggested that this was a left-wing problem and those on the right just do not behave like this.

This is the weaponisation of abuse: not intending to deal with abuse and eliminate it, but to use it as a political prop to attack the left. You see, online abuse, so the argument goes, exposes the real nature of the left as a whole. The left is a venomous political entity defined by viciousness and hatred, intolerant of opposition, threatening even, according to this narrative — and that is why they must be kept from power.

But this goes against my own lived experience. Every single day, large numbers of self-professed right-wingers bombard me with abuse, threats of violence, homophobic hatred, and so on. It is completely erased from the discussion. It does not exist, because it is politically inconvenient.

Here is an email from someone who clearly doesn’t take kindly to my views on faith schools. Three weeks ago, right-wingers circulated my home address, including specific instructions about how to enter the block of flats. This has happened over and over again: one hard right account took images from Google Street View, adding an arrow pointing to my bedroom window and an arrow pointing to my front door. In a former flat I used to live — having already left — my housemates had to move out when our address was shared. And it’s not just online. During the election campaign someone who objected to my left-wing opinions yelled at me that I was a “fucking cunt”: when I approached him to tell him he was not going to speak to me like that, he swung a punch (stopping just before he hit my face).

It is for this reason I attempted to redress the balance, so the right-wing abuse people like me face would actually be taken seriously. Here’s the Twitter thread I sent:

The vast majority of responses were those of solidarity, and understood that I was trying to redress the balance, to stop the political hijacking of abuse, and attempting to take all forms of abuse seriously. But there was a response from a particular faction of opinion which I genuinely found far more distressing than the actual abuse themselves. They represent a niche intersection of political views. On the one hand, they subscribe to what could be called ‘centrism’: a view that a radical left-wing prospectus is political suicide, and that those who have voted for Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader are collectively responsible for the inevitable electoral calamity. This has bred a particular form of bitterness which has outlasted — bizarrely even intensified — since the election. The second is opposition to the trans rights movement. This latter point matters, as I’ll come on to.

The response from one individual to the twitter thread above (including the abuse) was that “high profile men like you keep minimising” the abuse they suffered at the hands of left-wing men, that I was “gaslighting” them, that my comments were “dangerous for women”, that I was derailing the discussion. Although multiple feminists challenged her for hijacking a thread about right-wing homophobia, a couple of prominent centrist male allies suggested I was indeed derailing by sharing my own experience, “gaslighting”, and being disingenuous.

One of their allies was Martin Robbins, who sub-tweeted as follows (he denies he was responding to me but it’s pointless indulging that level of off-the-scale dishonesty):

You can judge for yourself whether that’s what my tweets were intending to do. Instead a gay man sharing vicious right-wing homophobic abuse came under attack for derailing the focus on left-wing abuse against centrist commentators. If I attempted to derail a woman sharing misogynistic abuse on the scale of the homophobic bile I’ve received, I would rightly now be embroiled in a devastating scandal. I regard this, for the record, as various individuals having no interest whatsoever in homophobic hatred, and that has made me angrier than almost any online episode I’ve been involved in.

In order to justify the narrative that left-wing abuse is the really serious problem, one prominent journalist suggested that “most abuse from the right for me is a ‘drive-by’: you know, you get quote-tweeted by an alt right Twitter star and people call you a libtard. The abuse from the left is personalised, sustained and obsessive (people tweeting about you once a week for YEARS). You remember it more because it clearly springs from personal animus (YOU are evil and should be overthrown) rather than someone just shit-posting).”

I’m not doing to dispute this, by the way, as their own lived experience. The hard right do not systematically target this individual, clearly because they don’t feel threatened by them. But they do systematically target people like myself. High-profile hard/far right twitter accounts such as Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson, Paul Joseph Watson and Sargon of Akkad tweet about me on a regular basis, and their followers — who are disproportionately brimming with whole series of undiluted forms of hatred — then spam me with abuse. These online abusers are what you could call Breivikites: Anders Breivik was the fascist Norwegian terrorist who slaughtered dozens of socialist children and young people on the basis the left was the facilitator of mass immigration and multiculturalism and thus the destroyers of European civilisation. They believe the left and radical Islamism are in cahoots, thus as bad as each other, thus both must be eliminated. There is almost no media interest in this form of online abuse.

Let me be clear though. I hold the Conservative Party partly responsible for the personal abuse left-wingers like myself receive. The Tories made a strategic decision to delegitimise the official Opposition, portraying Labour’s left flank as extremists and terrorist sympathisers. This is a line of attack with chilling implications, because it leaves the left exposed as a dangerous internal enemy, which legitimises radical right-wingers who believe the left needs to be eliminated.

It gets worse than that though, doesn’t it? The Daily Mail described — in a front page splash — judges who ruled there should be parliamentary scrutiny of Article 50 ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’ in a front page splash. When Theresa May called her calamitous snap election, the same newspaper screeched ‘CRUSH THE SABOTEURS!’ Those who dissent are portrayed as actual traitors. Here is a newspaper which demonises Muslims, immigrants, disabled people, benefit claimants, trade unions, public sector workers, you name it. And yes, this rhetoric has consequences. Back in 2012 a coalition of charities reported that the demonisation of benefit claimants by the media and politicians had led to soaring abuse of disabled people on the streets of this country. Hate attacks on the street are undeniably linked to media coverage of Muslims and immigrants. In the aftermath of Brexit — given the way pro-Brexit Tory politicians and newspapers decided to run the official Leave campaign — such hate attacks surged. Where is the outrage? Why is this excluded from a debate about online abuse? I mean — I even defended Theresa May from the Daily Mail’s sexism. But the right is studiously silent even when of their own receives this treatment from within their own ranks.

It is worth noting in all the debate about the abuse of MPs that it was Labour’s Jo Cox who was murdered by a far-right terrorist which many far less radical than myself linked to the sort of rhetoric being employed by hardcore right-wing Brexiteers.

Here’s another point missing from the discussion. Take the Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh, a man whose self-regard is not matched by his understanding of politics in Britain in 2017. Here is how he once described Corbyn supporters.

If an random Corbyn-supporting Twitter account had described Ganesh as “thick as pigshit”, it would be deployed as an example of how abusive the left are. But here’s a right-wing mainstream journalist dismissing a sizeable chunk of the British population as “just thick as pigshit”. Or take the Observer’s Nick Cohen, who wrote a column calling Corbyn supporters “fucking fools”. I bet if some Corbyn supporting Twitter account had called the serially wrong Nick Cohen as a “fucking fool”, he’d have dined out on it for weeks. It would have been used as an example of the hatred and intolerance of the left. But Cohen is a respectable mainstream journalist using a mainstream outlet, so somehow it’s different.

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly denounced left-wing abuse. Theresa May has not. She ran an election campaign which specifically demonised Diane Abbott knowing the vicious abuse Abbott receives, without ever denouncing it. Why is Corbyn singled out as being responsible for left-wing abuse, but Theresa May is not held to account for the Tory supporters calling me a gay cunt and an arse bandit? Well?

As above, I’m accused of ignoring left-wing online abuse. This is somewhat comic, not just because I’ve repeatedly condemned it (I mean jeesh, I even defended Louise Mensch) — but I’ve been more on the receiving end than most. My (discredited) fear that the polling meant that the public had their minds up about Jeremy Corbyn meant the things I believed in would be buried in electoral apocalypse above all else provoked bitter disappointment among the leadership’s most ardent supporters. They understandably felt that, given the almost universal mainstream media hostility directed towards them, one of their only possible champions abandoning ship was deeply disappointing. But for some, the reaction was obsessive anger and abuse. Were they representative? No. Were they vicious? Yes. And that’s one of the main reasons I temporarily abandoned social media earlier this year (on the basis it was wasting my life), a hiatus I’d have continued if it wasn’t for the general election.

So the idea that I don’t think left-wing abuse is a problem, or that I ignore it, is, I’m afraid, beyond farcical.

What I would say is that genuine abuse is being conflated with people being rude and snarky on twitter. Being called a ‘melt’ and a ‘slug’ (as I have been repeatedly described myself) is not the same as being called a ‘gay cunt’ and an ‘arse bandit’ is it? And yes, I realise left-wingers online have used worse than ‘melt’ and ‘slug’, and the reason I know this it they’ve used worse language towards me.

As I’ve mentioned, many of the detractors are united by their opposition to the trans rights movement, and/or are allied with such figures and give them media space. When many of them talk about the ‘left-wing’ abuse they receive, what they are really talking about is ‘trans activists and their allies’. Some of these more prominent trans rights activists who the detractors particularly object to are actually Liberal Democrat members, incidentally. Many of them would identify as being on the radical left, though. But the clash between these activists and the media commentators in question has not centred on left versus centrist ideas: it has centred on trans rights.

Look, I’ve said tone deaf things in the past which has failed to appreciate the struggle of trans rights activists for their emancipation, just as gay men like myself (who partly owe their rights to trans women in particular) have had to fight. And I’ve been on the receiving end of, yes, what could be termed abuse. But perhaps what was most upsetting was accusations of privilege. That always feels particularly personal. And I’m afraid that has what has particularly upset some of the commentators in question.

When I experienced this abuse in the past, I felt aggrieved, in the middle of a twitter storm, under attack, you name it. But here’s an important perspective and context to consider. The majority of trans people have contemplated suicide. A large majority suffer mental distress in a society absolutely riddled with transphobia. When prominent media commentators who describe themselves as progressive refuse to accept their right to exist, who intentionally and gratuitously misgender them, who joke about them looking like Pete Burns (as one of my trans women friends has been mocked by some of the detractors I’m referring to in this piece) — well, is anger understandable, even if the abuse is unsavoury? I put the abuse I’ve received in that context. They can’t do that, because they fundamentally oppose trans rights and portray supporters of trans rights as misogynists.

So let me make this clear. Online abuse is serious, and it can emerge from individuals of all political viewpoints. But left-wing online abuse is being politically weaponised. It is being used as a means to attack the left by people who have no interest in abuse other than as a political prop. Systematic, relentless Tory and general right-wing online abuse is ignored because it is politically inconvenient. That will now end. Enough is enough. A panicked right is becoming ever more abusive because they fear losing. And the more the mainstream media ignore it, the more responsibility the rest of us have to highlight it.