As anti-bullying week gets underway it is important to remember that bullying can no longer, if it ever was, be wholly associated with the school playground. As technology has adapted, so has the way in which individuals can be tormented. In recent years, we have seen social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter being used as tools in harassing and tormenting others online. Online abuse is relentless; often occurring around the clock. Online abuse however is not a behaviour which can only be associated with the younger generation. In fact, anyone can become a victim of abusive behaviour online, especially those within the public domain.
During the 2017 General Election online abuse caught the attention of society, the press and the government after MPs were subjected to horrific messages online. Politicians publicly spoke about receiving explicit threats of sexual violence, death threats and racist comments, to name but a few, throughout the campaign period. One female MP I interviewed during my PhD research stated that from the moment she publicly acknowledged she was running for a seat in Westminster, she was on the receiving end of abusive messages online:
‘It was quite quickly after the General Election after I announced I was going to be standing I started getting all these questions online…I started receiving loads of messages from people, very explicit messages. Sexual messages, erm, sexual messages, telling me what they wanted to do. Erm, how they were going to do it, with or without my consent…’
Following the 2017 General Election, Amnesty International conducted research directly examining the scale of online abuse aimed at female politicians during the election campaign. They found that between 1 January 2017 and 8 June 2017, 900,223 tweets were sent to 177 female MPs, of this 25,688 were deemed abusive. The most abused MP during the campaign period was Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who received more than 50% of all abusive messages sent during the runup to the 2017 General Election. Yet the statistics related to online abuse is considered to be ‘only the tip of the iceberg’.
The continued intimidation of politicians
Though the full extent of abusive behaviour online may never be known, its effects have been well documented, including, significant mental health issues, changes in a person’s online behaviour and in some cases withdrawal from social life. Recently, Liberal Democrat MP Heidi Allen has announced that she will not stand in the upcoming December General Election due to ‘nastiness and intimidation’ she has been subjected to as a politician. Though there is some expectation that as an MP you will be subjected to some form of criticism, online abuse goes further than this and is becoming a threat to our democracy. By continually abusing politicians online, we are reducing political discourse, which in turn hinders change within society. We are currently living during a time which can be described as a political crisis. With a General Election due to take place on 12 December 2019 which is likely to determine our relationship with the European Union, it is more important now than it ever has been to call out online bullying aimed at political candidates.