The police questioned a man for criticising Ukip on Twitter. Photo: Getty
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Criticise Ukip on Twitter? You could get a visit from the police

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is questioning why Cambridgeshire Police officers visited blogger Michael Abberton's home after he sent out a fact-checked list of ten Ukip policies on Twitter.

A tweet, the police, and ten Ukip policies. It doesn't sound like a particularly conventional formula for a crime drama, but a rather sinister-sounding story is currently unfolding from a blogger's bedroom in Cambridgeshire that leaves both police and Ukip party officials with a number of pressing questions to answer.

Michael Abberton, whose blog is called Axe of Reason, tweeted out a fact-checked version of a poster listing ten controversial policies attributed to Ukip. Abberton, who describes himself on his blog as "Definitely biased to the left", explained how he wanted to check the list of policies really belonged to the eurosceptic party, and so fact-checked each one, before tweeting it out last Monday.

Here's the tweet:

Abberton then wrote a blog post on Sunday detailing how the police came round to his house on Saturday afternoon to question him about the tweet, and asked him to "take it down", as well as not to make public the fact that they had come round to visit him.

The Cambridgeshire Police have confirmed to BuzzFeed today that they did indeed visit his home, commenting that it was to check whether offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act, a law that deals with the electoral system:

We were called with a complaint about a message on social media at about 12.40pm on Friday. Inquiries were made as to whether any offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act but none were revealed and no further action was taken...

And a spokesman for Cambridgeshire Police told the Guardian:

A Ukip councillor came across a tweet which he took exception to. The name of the person on the tweet was identified and that individual was spoken to. We looked at this for offences and there was nothing we could actually identify that required police intervention. Clearly, the councillor was unhappy about the tweets. If every political person was unhappy about what somebody else said about their views, we would have no politics.

Abberton's MP, Lib Dem Julian Huppert, tells me he has written to the Cambridge area commander, and is "awaiting a response from her about exactly what happened".

He is concerned that the police visit was inappropriate:

I struggle to see exactly what it could have been that would have been an offence in this case, and I'm looking forward to hearing the justification. Because otherwise from what I've seen, it does seem like an inappropriate for the police to be involved, and certainly Michael Abberton's description of the conversation suggests that they went a lot further than just trying to establish if he's committed an offence, but went to the level of asking him to take down the comments, not to tell anyone that they'd been round, various other things like that., which assuming that to be true, it is clearly inappropriate...

The clear question is whether there is a genuine allegation that he committed a criminal offence. And if there is such an allegation, then clearly it's alright for the police to investigate it, but I haven't seen anything to suggest that there was a clear allegation of potential criminal activity. And it's clearly inappropriate for the police to take action on political disagreement if there's no real sense that there was a criminal activity involved, and having seen the tweets that he [Abberton] sent out, I can't see in what way it would have violated the Representation of the People Act, I can't see any way in which it could be seen as being threatening or abusive.

Huppert has been in touch with the blogger electronically this morning, and remarks that his constituent is "clearly concerned" about the situation. "The idea that this could be seen as intimidation, whether pushed by police officers or whether pushed by Ukip is clearly an alarming one," he adds. "The role of the police is clearly to defend a free and open democracy, and given that I haven't seen any detailed allegations that he'd committed any sort of offence, it does seem odd and inappropriate for the police to be questioning him like that, and I can see why people would find that very intimidatory."

The Cambridge MP sees "a lot more scrutiny now of what people within Ukip are saying", adding, "I can see that many of them are uncomfortable with being challenged on their manifesto and on comments that their spokespeople have made."

Secretary of Ukip's Cambridge branch, Peter Burkinshaw, says he hadn't heard the story, not being "into social networking", but comments: "I wouldn't have thought it was criminal to tweet your opinion about something if it's not slanderous. I don't understand why the police would go round... In principle, if the man's just voicing an opinion, I can't see why it would involve the police at all."

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.