“Many of the social media companies need sensationalist content to generate income.”
How online harassment against politicians is threatening to keep women out of politics all together
Stephanie Hankey is Co-Founder of Tactical Technology Collective, an international NGO that engages with citizens and civil-society organisations to explore and mitigate the impacts of technology on society. With Politikerin* she talks about how online harassment impacts the work and engagement of women politicians. And why social media companies have no interest in transforming the digital space into a safer place for women politicians anytime soon.
Politikerin*: Stephanie Hankey, your research team looked into the scale of online harassment against women politicians in comparison to their male colleagues. What were the findings?
Stephanie Hankey (SH): Women in political power, especially women of color, get a lot of aggravation on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. For example Gina Miller, a British hedge fund manager, political activist, and one of the most prominent people against Brexit, was constantly being attacked online. So much so, that she wrote a book about it. She was attacked for not only being a woman, who was against Brexit, was politically active and present in the media, but also racially attacked as she is of Indian decent. So, often we see in politics it can be both racially and gendered motivated harassment.
Then you have Diane Abbott, a British MP. During the last national election campaign, the human rights organization Amnesty International reported that Abbot, a woman of color, alone received almost half of all the abusive tweets that were sent to female MPs in the run-up to the general election. Many studies show that politicians always get abuse online but women get more, and the threat is more sexualized.
Politikerin*: Do men receive more harassment for their politics, and female politicians for what they are and how they look?
SH: Exactly. Male politicians get hateful comments, too, but they are less personal. These comments are less about what they wear, or how they look. Also, they are not sexually violent. Rape is the biggest and most often expressed threat to female politicians, its targeted against women with the goal to silence them. This type of online harassment, the sexualised and racist one, has a significantly negative impact on women politicians.
Politikerin*: Can you give us some examples?
SH: There is the case of Canadian MP Celine Casesar Chavanne. She was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister in December 2015 and served in that role until January 26, 2017, when she became Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development. She decided to leave the Liberal caucus and sit as an independent. Caesar-Chavannes had chosen to step down and not seek re-election. In the aftermath of her announcing her decision to step down, she spoke about the racist online harassment she had constantly received during her time as a politician. Also hate mail on a weekly basis. Something that got worse when she actually raised awareness of received racist and sexist hate mail and online harassment via social media.
Also, a 2016 survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) of 55 women parliamentarians from 39 countries across five regions found that 81.8 percent were subject to some form psychological violence. The same study showed that 45 percent of them had received threats of rape, beatings, death or abduction.
This intimidation isn’t restricted to words. We have also see many cases of fake images being circulated on female politicians. It depends on the context but in some countries where women are less likely to be in power, countries with less gender equality, they have a lot more fake images circulating as an attempt to discredit female politicians, for example showing them semi-naked (with a super imposed body from somebody else). These images are usually circulated using fake images that make it it look like they have done something that they haven´t done, to discredit them in office or in an election.
Politikerin*: How does online harassment differ from how women experience offline harassment in the political sphere?
SH: I am really interested in what is new about the harassment we are seeing of female politicians online, and what is actually the same. First it is important to recognise and understand to what extent online behaviour against women is an extension of how it is in reality.
Unfortunately, it is not a new thing because of technology. Misogyny and sexism against women in politics is something that has long been established. The media already sets a bad example. Women politicians are being already being treated very unfairly in the public eye and this sets the precedent for how it plays out online. For example in the USA, a so called sentiment analyses survey was done of how the media is treating female and male candidates in the run up to the US 2020 presidential election. And by a large percentage, female candidates are more negatively portrayed and reported than their male counterparts.
I’m also interested in the normalization of how male politicians increasingly talk about female politicians, and how women are being treated in the political arena. Trump is an obvious example. But there are other examples. For example the Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the Green Party. She was slut-shamed by another senator, David Leyonhjelm, after a senate hearing on safety of women after the rape and killing of the Australian comedian Eurydice Dixon. Hanson-Young, a single parent, confronted him right after the debate, and also went public with it. She eventually sued him for defamation.
This is a way of shutting female politicians down: by insulting them sexually. So, in a way there is a lot of offline and standard behaviour in existence that is then being continued online and that is already part of the problem that needs recognising.
Politikerin*: But what is different about it? It is the scale of it and the persistence?
SH: In pre-digital times, you could perhaps deal with a singular event — the newspaper said this, a reporter or politician said that. But when harassment is constant, massive in scale and persistence; when you receive hundreds and hundreds of comments and tweets on Facebook and Twitter daily or weekly, it is hard to handle for any individual. And since the professional and private lives of politicians are not entirely separated, they cannot just switch it off.
Also, before the pervasiveness of digital technologies, these incidents happened on a very local level. It would be quite small scale and not as massive or as open for everyone to see as we may see it today on social media platforms.
Pre-digital, people perhaps would come to you or your family and would say something threatening. Or put a threat letter through your door, but they wouldn´t have the ability to do it publicly in front of thousands of people so that everybody else could see it. So, I suppose, in this sense, that online harassment can have a kind of snowball effect. The very public nature of it means it normalises it and more people take part. It creates a kind of mob effect.
And the most difficult and pressing problem in my view is this. Women nowadays who try to get elected need those digital platforms in order to promote themselves and to make themselves seen. They need to join the public debate. It is an essential part of the political process. If, however, they are constantly being shut down in the online space, they can not just decide to leave the content unread or get off the different platforms . It is their job to engage, that´s how politics is done these days.
If this is in an environment of constant online harassment, it creates an impossible environment to work in. So, what we see is women leaving politics altogether. Or, we find women not wanting to enter the political arena at all because of the online harassment. It is a lot to deal with on top of the normal difficulties of online life.
Politikerin*: … which is a disaster for any representative democracy.
SH: True. And in addition to that, the job is quite dangerous and unpleasant as well. The lower ranking the political profile and the job is, as well as the pay, the less it is worth the hassle. This is a serious problem as it will keep women out of politics at different levels. And that is what it is designed to do.
Take the case of women's rights activist Caroline Criado-Perez in the UK who had suggested to put Jane Austen on the 10 Pound banknote. After going public with that proposal, she received an enormous amount of online harassment for it. So, she went to the police to pursue it because she feared for her own safety. Over a period of 12 hours she received about 50 abusive tweets an hour. It was two men who had jointly coordinated attacks on women. This led to an arrest of one of the two men.
There are extreme cases where these incidents go beyond threats, for example what happened to the Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a fanatic in 2017 in the run-up to the UK snap election, who didn´t agreed with her politics. She had a family, she was a very experienced political advocate, was well respected and extremely well-integrated in both civil society circles and politics.
Politikerin*: So with the police receiving more and more reports of online harassment incidences, what is the response of governments?
SH: In the UK, there has been an attempt to formulate a regulatory response to online harassment of politicians. In particular the Online Harms White Paper released by the government earlier in 2019. This is a significant move as the government has proposed to recognize online violence and hate speech against public figures as an offense, along with child safety, radicalisation, incitement to terrorism online and other kinds of hate speech. It is essential that this is recognised, but such changes are complicated as they will create a lot of problems in terms of free speech, who gets to decide what is offensive to a politician and what is not and how these new rules will be enforced and by whom.
The social media platforms are really struggling with these questions. Currently, it is hard to get them to recognise whether or not something is hate speech or not and take it down or not. There are quite a few cases were women politicians addressed Facebook and asked: Can you please take this offensive content down. And the reply often has been that it is not offensive content. For example, the Labour MP Cat Smith had received rape threats in a private Facebook group and reported it to the Social Media company for it to be removed. Instead of the threats being removed, she was told that the messages were not in breach with the communities’ standards. Facebook later apologized.
Also, the solutions recommended by social media companies are not without their problems. For examples, some of the companies tell you to hide the online comments and responses so that you don´t have to see them. However, the comments are still there for everybody else to see, it’s just that you cannot see them. This is not really a solution. In some cases, this can be quite problematic because you cannot check whether the comments have gotten worse, and that’s dangerous.
If you are in a situation where you receive constant attacks and you can´t cope with it mentally or psychologically, I can totally see why you having control over what you can and cannot seems like a good idea, but still it’s not a good solution. If the solution of tech companies is that you have to regulate your behaviour; or that you just hide what you don´t want to see, that´s not going to help you.
Politikerin*: Why is it not a major concern of the social media companies to create solutions here? Surely, it can’t be in their interest, for example, for women politicians to be undermined in their democratic work.
SH: First, we need to understand the business model of the platforms in order to understand what we are up against. We are talking about an attention economy, right? So, when content and images are being passed around, users see things, users like things etc it creates that attention. The more the users like and the more they see, the more money these companies make, in particular Facebook. Many of the social media companies need sensationalist content to generate income.
On the one hand you have to ask, why then would tech companies do anything that compromises their business model? However more recently they have seen that it also creates a lot of bad press for them and is impacting the trust in them from their users and from the state in terms of how they deal with the problems created on the platform. So it is in their interest to try to reduce the instances of such extreme violence or harassment or to have solutions that work for high profile users. Because of this their attitude is starting to change. Still they don´t invest enough into these problems given the scale of the issues. So that´s why some tech companies try to make the communities themselves deal with the problem, thereby shifting the responsibility. For example, by creating research or grant based funds to help local groups tackle or mitigate hate speech online etc.
However, one of the reasons they won’t make more significant changes at the systemic or policy level is that they need to avoid at all costs being classified as content providers such as TV broadcast companies, radio or newspaper. These formats all have an editorial responsibility. If tech companies were classified like that, they would face totally different regulations and implications — this would change entirely what they can and cannot publish on their platform and what their level of responsibility for the content they carry and so on.
What they need to maintain is to be treated as communications providers, like a telecommunication provider, which has totally different regulations in terms of responsibility for content. Then they are just a carrier or facilitator. The truth is, however, that they are increasingly content carriers. And when you are a content carrier you take responsibility for what you host. Even after the Christchurch mass killing and other horrendous events we have seen over the past few years, tech companies still try to avoid being classified as content providers. However, they are being forced, by the extreme nature of the content, to take content down, to classify content and to monitor and react to content on their platforms. This is a difficult balance because if they were classified as content providers, the entire industry will collapse.
It would be impossible for those companies to do their jobs because all of the sudden they be responsible for all the content that they are hosting.
Politikerin*: With all these rather grim outlooks, what can be done to interest more women into politics?
SH: There needs to be more solidarity and stronger women networks. In the human rights and activist sphere, you have women´s groups coming together and sharing information on what kind of abuse they are receiving and comparing it because sometimes from analysis you can see patterns, for example it may be the same person or group of people. Or groups of women and technologists come to together to share skills on how to protect themselves from online harassment and develop different strategies for reaction. Just like in the women’s human rights sector, I could imagine an environment in which techie women are willing to help women politicians deal with these digital issues. On a smaller scale, there are simple techniques you learn and apply very quickly. Sometimes these are very useful things to be able to use and very easy once you know how. For example, the reverse image search function on Google search can be really useful when fake images or compromising images are being circulated. It can enable you to find all the instances of that image in a few seconds. It is super simple but most people don´t know that it is there. You put an image into Google and it finds all the other content that uses the same image.
All of these things help, but on a more systemic level looking for solutions, first you have to understand and recognise the problem in a more comprehensive way. I don´t think that it has been done well enough yet. There are scattered reports from a few years ago, there are lots of specific case studies, however there is hardly any systematically collected data. Research on the topic of online harassment of women politicians is not specific and detailed enough. And this needs to happen to fully understand the scale and depth of the problem and the impact it is having on female politicians.
The second thing is that it is needs to be more broadly recognized what an incredibly important factor online harassment for women is to either enter politics or to stay in politics. Women politicians need the online channels to do their job properly, to engage in a public debate and to share their opinions without being shut down or flooded by offensive content. And this right needs to be defended and upheld.
In the end, what we need is an interplay of government legislation; of social media platforms that act according to their responsibility; and individuals who can support female politicians and figure out how to deal and cope with something that will not go away overnight. These three levels must work together. One of them alone won´t make enough difference.
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Tactical Technology Collective is based in Berlin, Germany.
Their research on gender based online harassment against politically active women can be found here.