General Election 2024: Abuse of women in politics is denial of legitimate presence in political life

Dr Charlotte Galpin explains why the increase in the abuse faced by women standing to be MPs is a problem for our democracy.

Social media icons on a phone screen.

Today’s Guardian report that online harassment against women politicians is intensifying is unsurprising, but it indicates a serious problem in UK democracy. There are two important factors to consider here. Firstly, online abuse needs to be addressed not as a case of individualised behaviour but as something structural. Online abuse is often facilitated by powerful actors, for example, our research shows how online abuse towards academics during Brexit was staged by right-wing newspapers on their social media pages. The digital media economy means that news organisations and social media companies have an incentive to promote articles that whip up anger or outrage that encourages engagement, and therefore advertising revenue.

Secondly, online abuse of women and other marginalised people needs to be understood not solely as ‘slurs’ or individualised insults but as a denial of a legitimate presence in political life. Our research found that online abuse of women academics and professionals, criticised not only their knowledge and expertise but their very status as academics, or, through threats of violence of death, even their right to exist at all. Something similar occurs with women politicians, promoting an idea of politics as the domain of white men and delegitimising the existence of politicians who do not and cannot conform to this image. Such abuse is intended to silence and remove knowledge and opinions that challenge traditional hierarchies, denying representation for marginalised communities.

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