Misogyny, intimidation, silencing – the realities of online bullying

The aggregated effect of floods of negative comments online can be enough to put opinionated women off appearing in public.

Last night I was chatting online, offering support to a friend who had just been bullied off Twitter. Nobody famous. Just an ordinary, everyday sort of woman who has taken the nastiness that life has dealt her over the last few years and come through it. Smiling? Mostly. But also vulnerable.

As an active feminist, she deals with anonymous abuse – she gets a fair bit of that, from the EDL and their hangers-on – and though it’s not nice, she copes. What got to her this time, though, was the viciousness of "friends" when called out on their refusal to condemn violence against women and joke polls about "people you'd most like to kill".

Hilarious. Only she is far from alone. My own friends list is full of people – mostly women – whose activism has led to them being targeted: whose failure to "get a joke" turns them instantly into the butt of one themselves. I've been on the receiving end, too, very recently. Of online abuse. Of intimidation. Though nowhere on the scale of that endured by better known columnists such as Julie Bindel, who has been threatened yet again this past weekend.

So forgive me if I don't join with those suggesting Suzanne Moore "man up" in response to the latest batch of online abuse. Or dissing Mary Beard, who has come in for abuse following her appearance on Question Time last week, as an online wimp. It’s an issue – and the simplistic analysis I have seen of it so far doesn't go a fraction of the way to address it.

First up, there is something disturbingly misogynistic about online bullying. Yes: blokes, male columnists, undoubtedly get it too. But it feels as though there is something far more vicious, gender-related with respect to what women have to endure.

Beard makes the point well, in a blog responding to her own online treatment. It is clear that she is no stranger to tired old jokes about her appearance – but even she has been shocked about the response she evoked, describing the level of misogyny as “truly gobsmacking”. The focus of much of the abuse is sexual, sadistic even and, she adds: “it would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate”.

In other words, it is silencing, something I get very well from personal experience. I’ve opted out of contributing online for periods ranging from hours to a couple of weeks after being subjected to this sort of online nastiness. Not just me. Many far braver women with serious contributions to make to public discourse on violence and abuse have suffered similar: been silenced simply for having an opinion.

Some of this is just “mobbing” – I use the word deliberately – in the sense of birds flocking together to repel a common threat. It’s pretty apposite for Twitter, whose name and language (tweeting) both allude to birdy origins. There is no plan: no organising mind. Usually.

Though, of course, with social networking being what it is nowadays, it is hard, at times, to distinguish deliberate organisation from rabbles roused through incendiary comments on shared interest groups and forums.

Individual comments may be strong but otherwise innocuous. However, it is their aggregate effect that is pernicious. One adverse comment I can cope with. Ten I’ll manage. A hundred flooding my various online access points is intimidating, even if most aren’t meant that way.

And some comments ARE deliberately intimidating. There has been criticism of Suzanne Moore for referring some of her detractors to the police. I don’t share that criticism, having involved the police more than once in response to threats received. Not just direct threats. But the ones that reference my whereabouts.

Why? Because even though I’m not hard to find, the fact of tweeting that information, in any form, is more sinister. It shows that the poster did some research about me and, having researched, is now proudly boasting: “I know where you live”. That’s creepy in any language: doubly so when you think of the intended target.

Ok. I’ll be charitable. Maybe it’s the same sort of thing as walking behind a woman late at night – and the way some guys just don’t get that that is intimidating: think it is about THEIR rights, THEIR freedoms. But, I’ll say it again: this is a bigger issue than many are prepared to admit.

It’s about misogyny. It’s about intimidation. It’s about silencing.

I don’t know the answer. Rather, it seems, we are looking at the balance between two mirror-image issues. “Above-the-line”, in the mainstream press, the real issue is not so much freedom as access: the ability of minorities to make themselves heard.

“Below-the-line”, in comments, on Twitter, the problem is the opposite. Too many voices, raised in angry clamour, with little thought for their effect on others. How we regulate that – or not – will in time determine who actually gets to have a voice on many issues.

Twitter can play host to extreme "mobbing", where users flock together to try and expel a perceived "threat". Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.