Report reveals shocking extent of "human rights abuses" against women MPs online

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Female MPs in the UK are frequently subjected to vile abuse on Twitter. 

From the racial slurs leveled at Diane Abbott in the lead up to the general election, to the 5,000 rape threats sent to Jess Phillips after she launched the cross-party initiative Reclaim The Internet, trolling has now become part and parcel of life as a female MP – and it appears the situation isn’t improving.

In a new report published on Medium this week, charity Amnesty International revealed the shocking extent of the abuse aimed at women working in parliament, and particularly against women of colour, demonstrating how urgently action needs to be taken against such trolling.

From analysing tweets sent between 1 January 2017 and 8 June 2017 (the general election), the charity found that Diane Abbott received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets in the six weeks leading up to the election. Excluding Abbott, black and Asian female MPs received 35% more abusive tweets than white female MPs.

The report also notes that “online abuse cuts across party lines, affecting women from all UK political parties”.

Abbott has spoken out repeatedly about the abuse she receives on Twitter, most notably during a parliamentary debate about intimidation of candidates during elections.

Describing some of the vile insults she received via email, Twitter and Facebook, she explained how the abuse was repeatedly fixated on her race, gender and weight. 

“We are talking about mindless abuse, and in my case the mindless abuse has been characteristically racist and sexist,” she said.

“And just to outline I’ve had death threats, I’ve had people tweeting that I should be hung if ‘they could find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’.

“There was an EDL-affiliated Twitter account [called] ‘hashtag BurnDianeAbbott’, I’ve had rape threats, [been] described as a pathetic, useless fat black, piece of s**t, ugly fat black bitch and n*****.

“N***** over and over again.”

Numerous other women MPs have also come forward to highlight the problem.

Last year Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, told The Sunday Times that “being a female politician, there is no way you are going to avoid abuse… I don’t know anyone who has not had to deal with it.”

Siddiq is Muslim, and said that she has personally received “horrendous abuse… ranging from, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a hijab?’ to ‘If I could I would kill you’.”

She also discussed how she had formed an informal support group with other female politicians to help them handle the level of abuse they receive on a daily basis.

“We meet online and in the tea rooms,” she said. “We support each other as MPs and as women. Online abuse can be really frightening and upsetting for some women.”

Other MPs who have spoken out include Jess Phillips, who slammed Twitter as “not safe” after the platform refused to act over the thousands of rape threats she was sent, and Stella Creasy, who spoke of her concern that online abuse will cause girls to "shut down and not speak up any more" in an interview with Stylist.

Referencing the extent of abuse aimed at women MPs, the Amnesty report noted that online abuse “flourishes” on Twitter “making it a toxic space for women”.

The author of the report called for Twitter to “enforce its own policies on hateful conduct and abuse”, adding that “the UK government has an obligation to protect women from human rights abuses”.

It concluded: “Nearly 90 years after women won the right to vote, there is a real danger that the high levels of online abuse against women MPs will have a chilling effect on women taking part in public life  – particularly women of colour.

“This is not only detrimental in terms of the possible long-term effect on the representation of women in politics in the UK but also continues to deepen societal inequality between genders.”

The abuse aimed at women MPs during the lead-up to the general election will soon be discussed at a Parliamentary Enquiry launched by Theresa May. Here’s hoping proper action will be taken.

Images: Rex Features