The abuse of politicians has become a prominent feature of political discourse in democracies around the world. In the UK, the abuse of MPs reached such a fevered pitch in the months prior to the 2019 General Election that several of the MPs who stood down cited the abuse they receive as a contributing factor.
The rising tide of abuse
The early months of the pandemic coincided with a reduction in the abuse of MPs. But the impermanence of Covid-19’s civilising effect has become bracingly apparent in the last few days. The government’s refusal to extend free school meals over the half-term break has seen a new wave of invective trickle into the Twitter feeds of several MPs.
The discursive détente in the first half of 2020, in which the MPs most associated with the coronavirus response received proportionally less abuse on Twitter than normal, is notable because it is exceptional. The wider trend has been one of rising hostility. In fact, the proportion of abusive tweets received by MPs has increased at every election since 2015 and physical intimidation is also on the rise.
This phenomenon is not unique to any particular group of MPs. Parliamentarians from all parties receive abuse, though Conservatives have tended to receive marginally more than MPs from other parties. Both male and female MPs are targeted, but the quantity and nature of the abuse varies. Men typically receive more abuse overall, but it tends to be generic or political. Women receive fractionally less abuse on average but it is more likely to be sexist or threatening. That said, while MPs of all descriptions receive abuse, parliamentarians of colour are often disproportionately targeted and are more likely to receive racist abuse than white MPs. Similarly, several Jewish MPs have been subject to routine antisemitic abuse.
For my own research, I recently interviewed 32 MPs, former MPs and parliamentary assistants, collectively representing six of the main political parties. The majority of these interviewees described how the abuse they received had harmful effects on their emotional well-being, the execution of their professional duties, or their willingness to continue in their role. These effects included self-censorship, reduced accessibility to constituents, a reluctance to stand for elected parliamentary positions, an avoidance of controversial topics and campaigns, and a diminished willingness to run for office in future.
What is to be done?
Much thought has been given to what more social media companies can do to address the saturation of their platforms with harmful content and the Committee on Standards in Public Life has set out a number of steps Twitter, Facebook and others can take to address the abuse of public figures.
But social media companies alone cannot solve the problem. For their part, the police could do more. Currently, a Parliamentary Liaison and Intelligence Team (PLAIT) operates out of the Metropolitan Police and advises police forces around the country on how to respond to threats to politicians. MPs can consent to PLAIT monitoring their social media for threatening content. However, many of the complaints that the team deal with relate to violent and criminal content, while much of the low-level but constant abuse that MPs receive is not dealt with. Broadening PLAIT’s remit to focus on abuse writ large, which often amounts to harassment in the aggregate even if individual posts do not break specific laws, would be an efficient way of granting additional protection to MPs online.
Similarly, political parties have a role to play in protecting their parliamentarians. Several of the MPs I interviewed explained that, of all the individuals who abuse them online, the repeat offenders very often integrate symbols of partisanship – such as the Labour rose or a pro-Conservative hashtag – into their Twitter handles. Parties should therefore establish a strict code of conduct to govern the online behaviour of their members. Breaches of the code should be dealt with swiftly via the parties’ disciplinary mechanisms. A number of interviewees also complained that MPs had recourse to very little support within the party itself. Party Whips should be proactive in providing their MPs – especially new MPs – with the support they need.
Finally, parliament itself can do more to support MPs facing abuse. Of the MPs and parliamentary staff that I interviewed, about two-thirds explained that the abuse they received had an effect on their mental health. Numerous MPs described feeling “debilitated”, “stressed”, “distracted”, “frazzled”, “sapped”, “anxious” and “upset” because of the abuse they receive. Although Parliament does provide a mental health service for parliamentarians and their staff, two-thirds of MPs are unsure of how to access these services. Similarly, over half of MPs have reported feeling unable to discuss their mental health either with party Whips or other colleagues. The Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service should consider establishing a specific programme of support for MPs and parliamentary staff who are experiencing emotional distress as a result of their exposure to abuse. The Service should also consider ways in which it can promote itself directly to MPs, including via the provision of regular stalls across the parliamentary estate, rather than relying on email notices which may get drowned out in the avalanche of correspondence that MPs receive and which their staff typically manage.
A winter of discontent
As we move towards the festive season and a possible second lockdown, frustration with politicians is likely to grow. Developing a stronger, co-ordinated policy response to the abuse of MPs will be crucial for ensuring that our elected representatives are mentally and physically uninhibited in their efforts to represent their constituents, and that talented prospective candidates are not discouraged from entering politics in future because of the abuse they anticipate receiving.