Digital Disinformation: Combating Online Hate Towards Women Politicians

| by Kate Macrae |

Since I was young I’ve wanted to make a difference in this world, have my voice heard, have my voice matter. My parents taught me to be kind, compassionate, and treat others the way I wanted to be treated. They nurtured me into the strong and confident woman I am today. I thought politics was the place for me to be able to share my voice and have it matter, however throughout my own time on social media and courses, I’ve learned it may not be the space for me.

I’ve always known, but been somewhat oblivious to the fact, that women in political office face 40% more online hate than men. Yet it wasn’t until sitting in POLS 280 (Introduction to Women, Gender and Politics), that I really understood how horrendous it is. Typically, male politicians are subject to online hate and abuse related to their profession, policy, and voting choices. However, women politicians are more likely to be harassed online about their lifestyle, personality, and physical characteristics.

In today’s age, there is no option to not be on social media if you’re a politician. It’s your main way to connect with your constituents, your supporters, and share important updates, yet it’s also the battleground for the majority of hate women face online.

In a study published in 2017, Amnesty International observed over 700 women in political and journalist roles and found that 7.1% of tweets sent to the women in the study were “problematic” or “abusive”. This adds up to 1.1 million tweets mentioning 778 women in one year, or one every 30 seconds. As well, they found that online abuse does not just target one group of women, or women from a certain political party or set of beliefs. Politicians and journalists faced similar levels of online abuse and it was observed that both liberals and conservatives, along with left and right leaning media organisations, were targeted.

During QFLIP’s 2021 conference, Minister Catherine McKenna spoke very frankly about being a high-level politician. During her tenure as Minister of the Environment and now Minister of Infrastructure, she is subjected to online hate, attacks, and death threats daily. She talked openly, and it felt like I was right there with her. It was a raw and emotional moment, and we all cried. On June 28th of this year, Minister McKenna announced she was stepping down from politics, and she’s not alone. Across the world women politicians are stepping down from office to pursue a more private life after years of abuse, harassment and threats online.

Nevertheless, there is some good coming out of all of this. In recent years, women have come together to help dismantle the hateful cycle of abuse, and misogyny they face online. Through campaigns, social movements, and technology, women are championing others to get involved. Even still, to make a change and improve the political ecosystem for women, there’s only one solution: to get more women in politics and to follow through on the duty to protect them.

We cannot step down and allow our voices to be silenced, but must lean in and strive to get more women into office. However, giant tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook need to be held accountable and responsible for the online harassment on their sites. While the monitoring of online groups has started, that alone is not enough. There needs to be legitimate reform on all levels from private companies to legislative change. We need to ensure that all women have an equal chance as men to enter and thrive in office, and work without fear of harassment or online hate.

Written by Kate Macrae, fourth year Political Studies and Global Development