If we want more women in politics, we must use an intersectional lens to tackle online harms
By Sally Patterson
The upcoming Online Harms Bill certainly appears to mark progress. It promises to create a ‘new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies’, refocusing responsibility from the targets of online harm to those in positions to protect them.
However, early signs indicate that the Bill grossly underestimates the range of people likely to be targeted online. Whilst the initial White Paper rightly acknowledges the vulnerability of children in the digital sphere, there is a marked absence of the other groups routinely harmed online. Top of the list are women, particularly those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and those with other intersecting identities, such as disabled women, LGBTQ+ women, and women of faith.
"Cyber-abuse silences women by forcing them to withdraw from debates or spaces, for fear of the violent backlash, and the consequences for our democratic system are devastating."
The Government’s White Paper does recognise that people in the public eye and public figures are particularly susceptible to digital harms. This was the focus of my own research, which specifically examined Jewish female MPs’ experiences of online abuse and revealed how debilitating such abuse is for its targets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research found that Jewish women received unprecedented amounts of cyber-abuse, typically both antisemitic and misogynistic. Tropes about Jewish people were intertwined with sexist vitriol, forming a uniquely unpleasant tone on social media, epitomised through the phrase ‘Zionist cumbucket’. Nazi imagery and terminology were frequently deployed in online abuse, with tweets comparing the MPs to rodents, and pictures of the women overlaid with swastikas circulating the internet.
Whilst the nature of the abuse might be shocking in itself, what has been routinely under-developed in the rhetoric around cyber-abuse is the emotional, physical, professional and long-lasting impact that such abuse had on its targets. My research suggested that it is both inaccurate and irresponsible to draw an arbitrary line between the ‘offline’ and ‘online’ spheres. Online harms have very real offline repercussions, and abusers frequently use both remits to harass, intimidate and terrorise their targets. For example, abuse on social media often came in tandem with abusive leaflets being handed out in the MPs’ constituencies. The culmination of death threats on Twitter and their addresses being publicly available led two participants in my research to move their homes, on police advice. All of the MPs I spoke to had serious security measures installed in their houses, such as panic buttons, reinforced windows and ‘bomb bags’ for their mail.
These women couldn’t simply ‘switch off’’ their phones and get on. Being targeted by abusers online was a life-sentence, and their lives were turned upside down. As well as relocating and enlisting stringent security measures, these Jewish MPs had to plan out every aspect of their schedule, to ensure their own security and that of their staff and family. Cyber-abuse stripped them of basic daily activities that most of us take for granted; popping to the shops, spontaneously making plans with friends. The power of online abuse, and online abusers, deprives those targeted of living normal, functional lives.
"We would all benefit from seeing more women in positions of power, especially women from diverse backgrounds, but for women with intersecting identities, the costs of engaging may simply be too high."
Cyber-abuse silences women by forcing them to withdraw from debates or spaces, for fear of the violent backlash, and the consequences for our democratic system are devastating.
In an increasingly digitised world, MPs rely on social media platforms, websites, blogs and apps to connect with their electorate. They need it to win elections. As one MP said, whilst she still engages with the public face to face, her electorates’ lives are increasingly online. When politicians are forced off line by cyber-abusers, they lose access to a crucial vehicle for communication. Another MP even questioned whether she could encourage other young women to enter politics with a clear conscience, after the trauma she and her family had endured.
Jewish MPs are far from the only high-profile women targeted. My research joins a growing body of literature calling out the very real harm that online abuse brings. We need more young women to come forward, speak out about injustice and engage in political life, but the personal risks are inordinately high. Until social media companies and other online spaces genuinely take responsibility for abuse on their platforms, women will continue to be bullied out of public life. We would all benefit from seeing more women in positions of power, especially women from diverse backgrounds, but for women with intersecting identities, the costs of engaging may simply be too high. The Online Harms Bill has the potential to begin to address cyber-abuse and its repercussions. But it will only succeed if it places women’s experiences at its very core, using an intersectional lens to eradicate online harms for good.
Sally Patterson @salpatz is a member of Centenary Action Group representing the Alliance for Jewish Women
If you want to have a flourishing online presence but are avoiding social media because of the fear of online abuse, take part in Glitch training: Educate and Activate: Digital Self Care for Womxn and non binary people – 15th September, 6-7pm. Sign up here.