Vile online abuse against female MPs ‘needs to be challenged now’

Less than two weeks ago, Tulip Siddiq, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, was talking about the online abuse she was regularly getting, including death threats. “If I could I would kill you,” was just one of them. “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,” she said, adding it could be “frightening and upsetting” and that a group of female MPs had an unofficial support group to deal with it. But at the same time, she also brushed off the effects on her. In an interview with the Sunday Times, she described herself as “a tough middle child” who wouldn’t be silenced. Now, the day after the devastating murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, she doesn’t sound so sure. “When I spoke about it before, I was one of those who shrugged it off and said I was not as affected by it as other people,” she says. “I felt I could handle it and not let it get to me. What I do know is that what happened to Jo has changed the environment.”

There is no evidence that Jo Cox’s killer took part in an online campaign of abuse, but it has emerged that Cox had been harassed in many messages over a period of three months. It isn’t clear if this was any different from the stream of vile abuse that almost every female MP – particularly those, as Cox was, who are outspoken about feminism and human rights – endures on a sometimes daily basis. Whatever the specific circumstances of her murder, many people feel that the torrent of rape and death threats faced by woman in public life, particularly politicians, are an undeniable part of the culture in which it happened. In a much-shared tweet on Thursday, Beth Murray, a director at a not-for-profit company, wrote: “Female MPs get daily death and rape threats: ‘It’s just online, why can’t you ignore it?’ Female MP is murdered: ‘An unexpected tragedy’.” If nothing else, the idea that this abuse is somehow not part of real life may finally be blown apart.

“With the kind of behaviour and vitriol that exists on Twitter and in public discourse about female politicians, and women more generally, I think it’s really naive to think that it exists in a bubble and doesn’t infiltrate culture more generally, and that it won’t influence behaviour,” says Claire Annesley, professor of politics at the University of Sussex. “Of course we’ve got to be cautious about linking things, but I also think we’ve got to be cautious of thinking [the culture of online abuse] has nothing to do with it. I think it’s part of the package.”

Labour MP Jess Phillips said she received more than 600 threats of rape in one night on Twitter in May. Photograph:

Siddiq is keen to stress that this isn’t about her. She is grieving for her friend, with whom she entered parliament at last year’s general election, and gave her advice before her daughter, now 10 weeks old, was born. Siddiq also has a uniquely personal link to political assassinations – her grandfather, the first prime minister of Bangladesh, was killed, along with 19 members of her mother’s family. Loth though she is to talk about herself, what she can talk about is the wider abuse she and her female colleagues experience – Cox as much as any. “She was, for me, a woman doing her job. We can’t get into a situation where women feel intimidated about doing their jobs. We don’t want to have a society where women can’t work.

“At which point do you take threats seriously, or dismiss them? I’ve had death threats on Twitter, or threats of violence. Do I just shrug it off, thinking it’s some person tweeting me at 3am from California, or is it someone who can access me? I have dismissed threats, and in light of this, I don’t think I can dismiss some of the comments directed at me. Online misogyny and death threats are all violence against women. Just because it’s online doesn’t make it any more acceptable than if it was in print or said verbally. The online world has to be safe for women as well. It’s not something that we should take and accept. It needs to be challenged, especially now.”

You don’t have to look far to see it. Barely hours after Cox’s death was announced, the MP Jess Phillips posted this tweet in response to a vile conversation about her appearance: “Just for one day perhaps this misogyny could let up. My beautiful friend was murdered today.” Last month, Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, said she received more than 600 threats of rape in one night on Twitter. The Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy has had to put up with years of abuse: in 2014 a man was jailed for 18 weeks for bombarding her with messages threatening to rape her. Last year, the Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff was sent a Facebook message from a man (who later received a suspended sentence) who said: “Dead girl walking. Hope you get raped. We got your phone number and details.”

Last month, the SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, previously too worried to talk publicly, spoke about the amount of abuse she received, mostly sexist. “We already [face] a deficit of women, of people with disabilities, of members of the LGBTI community in public life,” she said. “How are we going to get them to come forward unless we tackle this?”

Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy … a man was jailed in 2014 for bombarding her with rape threats. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

There have been attempts. In April, the Guardian began a campaign, the Web We Want, which has highlighted how women are far more likely to receive abuse online. Barely three weeks ago, a group of female politicians across the parties launched the Reclaim the Internet campaign, a public consultation on online abuse, particularly targeted at women. “Forty years ago women took to the streets to challenge attitudes and demand action against harassment on the streets,” said the Labour MP Yvette Cooper at the launch. “Today the internet is our streets and public spaces. Yet for some people, online harassment, bullying, misogyny, racism or homophobia can end up poisoning the internet and stopping them from speaking out. We have responsibilities as online citizens to make sure the internet is a safe space. Challenging online abuse can’t be done by any organisation alone … This needs everyone.”

Maria Miller, the Conservative MP and chair of the women and equalities select committee, is one of the women behind it. “What I want to see is a more honest and open conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour online,” she says. “I think at the moment people simply accept online abuse that verges on criminal behaviour without really questioning whether that is acceptable. The concern I have is the chilling affect online abuse can have on free and open debate. Members of parliament, like anybody else, don’t want to be involved in discussions that become aggressive and violent in their nature. My concern is not just for MPs, but others as well, that they are able to use social media without fear of violent verbal attacks.” The internet, she says, “sometimes … brings out the worse in people”.

She says that among female MPs, “it’s part of the job to accept the fact that you will get vile abuse online”. And is it unreasonable to think the consequence of that would be that it would put off other women from becoming MPs? “I certainly think that the way women are treated in the media can make them think twice about whether they’d want to stand for election. That, coupled with real concerns about the impact of social media on their lives doesn’t help when we’re trying to increase the number of women in parliament, which is still really inadequate.”

Chair of the women and equalities select committee Maria Miller … one of the politicians behind the Reclaim the Internet campaign. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Evans, a politics lecturer at the University of Bristol and co-convenor of the European Conference on Politics and Gender, says some male MPs get extreme abuse – particularly racist, homophobic or antisemitic attacks – but female MPs face far more. “It will make them think twice about public profile and the kind of things they want to say online,” she says. “It is effectively shutting down spaces for women who are not only representing their constituencies, but women in general.”

If you are getting death or rape threats on a day-to-day basis, of course it will have an impact on your life, says Fran Amery, lecturer in politics at the University of Bath and co-convenor of the Women and Politics specialist group of the Political Studies Association. “[For MPs] Twitter is a very useful means of communication, and if it is becoming something that is more difficult for women to access, that’s a problem.” Last month, Phillips said she was considering leaving Twitter because of the amount of abuse directed at her: “It’s not a solution just to block and ignore them in my case. The only solution in stopping me seeing it is if I stop going on Twitter, which is a very real possibility.”

It has emerged that Jo Cox had been the subject of online harassment. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Amery is pessimistic that anything will really change, even after the horrific events of this week. “There are already attempts to treat this as an isolated event, describing the suspect as a loner. There is a reluctance among some people to see this in the context of things like misogyny, online abuse, racism, xenophobia.”

The response to the treatment of online abuse from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has been sorely lacking. “I think the industry is still getting away with ignoring this problem,” says Miller. “I don’t think they take it seriously. It’s for parliamentarians to really call time on the sorts of behaviour that would be absolutely unacceptable in any other environment. The Reclaim the Internet campaign is an important step forward in making that voice heard. I’ve secured a debate in parliament in July on online abuse and I will be continuing to press the government on taking action to make sure we’ve got robust laws, prosecuting individuals who are behaving in a way that is absolutely unacceptable in British society today, but also looking for ways to make sure that platforms are accountable for the way they are designing their products, and are also transparent on the number of reports of serious abuse they receive. Because these figures are less than forthcoming.”

Annesley thinks that, for a lot of female MPs, the explosion of online abuse “has become almost unbearable. The way women in public life are being threatened is really intensifying. I think we have a particular responsibility to keep MPs safe, and a special duty to make sure female MPs are treated with the equal amount of respect.”

One aide who works for a female MP, and asked to remain anonymous, said he was shocked by the amount and nature of tweets, Facebook messages and emails that her office receives every day. “It’s a full range, from sexist insults to discussions of her sex life and appearance, to explicit threats of sexual violence,” he says. “I’ve seen female MPs in great distress [after] reading some of the things that are said about them.”

He regularly reports the abuse to the police, and around 10% of it is deemed to be illegal or worth following up, even though all of it is deeply upsetting. “The police are sympathetic, but within the confines of the law. It’s difficult for them to police all of the abuse.

“The ones that are trying to be open and accessible are the ones who are going to be more affected by this stuff. I know MPs who don’t have a constituency office, let alone a Facebook page. The ones who try to show leadership in their communities are the ones who are most vulnerable to abuse. I’ve had conversations with [the MP he works for] about whether she wants to stay on Twitter. If she left, not only would that let those people win, but it would make her less accessible to her constituents.”

Dealing with abuse takes a huge amount of time and emotional energy, when an MP would rather be getting on with their job. There are posts – particularly vile, threatening messages – he doesn’t show to his boss and passes to the police, although the MP is told about them. “It’s disturbing for everybody, not just for her, but us as well,” he says.

The abuse of politicians, but especially the women in public life who get the worst of it, looks very different this week. “What kind of environment have we created,” says Siddiq, “when someone felt like they could attack their member of parliament in this vicious manner? That’s something that needs to be challenged.”

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