It is often perceived that people who abuse MPs with vile, even criminal, comments on social media fit a specific demographic: basement dwelling “keyboard warriors”, solitary white males, socially inept, often angry with a grudge to bear. But this perception grossly misunderstands the nature of abuse and the abusers themselves.
Our research suggests that abusers actually have closer characteristics to wider society. Our study indicates that the culprits of abuse are ordinary citizens who feel unrepresented by the current political system and inspired into abusive online behaviour by the traditional media’s negative narrative of politics.
When MPs met for a Whitehall debate on the abuse and intimidation of candidates in the 2017 general election, there were some deeply emotional accounts. Labour MP Diane Abbot, for example, read out examples of the sexist and racist messages she had received over the course of the campaign.
The effects of the abuse experienced by MPs are detrimental to democracy. The toxic political environment brought about by abuse is partly responsible for the increasing number of MPs resigning mid-parliament. Elsewhere, there have been reports of people, especially women, being put off entering political spaces, or self-censoring themselves from fear of abuse.
These accounts reveal the harrowing nature of some of the abuse, but very little is discussed, or even known, about the perpetrators of online political abuse.
Who are online abusers?
The police have revealed that very little work had been undertaken to understand the profile or characteristics of those who send abuse to political representatives. This gap has meant that a series of unfounded cultural perceptions of who abusers are has been propagated by the media and political representatives themselves.
Most notably, there is the perception of online abusers being angry, white, socially-inept males. Indeed, speaking to the Home Affairs Select Committee in March, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle called the trolls “keyboard warriors” active in the middle of the night. However, our data collection has shown this claim to be a myth. Abusers post at the same time as “regular” users.
Mental illness has also been referenced by some as a reason why people are abusive towards politicians. Evidence from six democracies (UK, US, Canada, Australia, Norway and New Zealand) suggests a link between high levels of harassment, physical attacks, stalking, inappropriate communications and mental disorders among abusers.
The study concluded that it is hard to determine if mental health was a factor in political social media abuse and that this could add to the stigma attached to mental health. Other studies have suggested that online abusers are simply citizens who are bored, seeking attention through anonymity rather than making any political statement or threats – ranging from people who attempt to subvert online communities by trolling, to all out abuse.
A more worrying prospect is that online abuse is seen as a legitimate form of political action – or the only way for the disenchanted to have their voice heard. This suggests that there is a failure or disconnect within the British political system to represent the needs of the people. The reaction to this by an angry public is to throw a “bomb in the works” of democracy.
Examples of this form of protest potentially include the election of Donald Trump in the US, or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Indeed, rather than stating the scale of the issue of abuse of MPs online, it is clear that the motivations behind why this happens need to be better understood. From here, we can work on tackling the source of the issue, rather than the symptoms.
Research based on over 270,700 tweets to MPs (November 2016 to January 2017) suggests another pattern of political abuse. We detected 6,952 abusive tweets to MPs, suggesting 2.57% of all tweets to MPs were abusive. That’s 25 tweets in every 1,000. But the abuse was not consistent across the collection period. Instead, spikes could be found surrounding contentious news stories. Significant spikes of abuse followed stories about Brexit, including the Supreme Court ruling over Article 50. This suggests that patterns of abuse are topical.
We also found a relationship between abuse and replies to statements made by MPs on Twitter. This suggests people are seeing messages posted by MPs and are responding with abuse. Abuse, then, is often a reaction to what the abusers see on social media.
Polarisation and populism
If our reactionary model of abuse is indeed accurate, then perhaps the packaging of political news is a cause of abuse. Politics is now presented in a punchier, more emotive format. Increasing levels of polarisation and populism has led to a more extreme and divided climate of political journalism. Indeed, the rise of professional “Trollumists”, such as Katie Hopkins, is indicative of the methods some news sources are turning to to drum up clicks, social media shares and viewing figures.
However, a result of the rise of more adversarial journalism is an adversarial public. Which in turn leaves some citizens angrier at MPs and therefore leads them to abuse. Media malaise is often discussed when the topic of the waning national interest in politics comes up. Perhaps it is time to address whether media malaise is contributing to a more abusive society and political environment?
While there will never be a quick fix for the issue of online harassment of politicians – it is clear that action needs to be taken to solve the source of abuse, rather than treating the symptoms. In this, our research suggests that a two-pronged approach should be taken. We need research to understand why people feel the need to be more abusive. And the media needs to understand its role in the cycle of abuse.