Heidi Tworek: The online abuse and harassment of women in politics must stop

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      By Heidi Tworek

      Many Canadians believe we have a better track record on women’s participation in politics than the facts warrant.

      A record number of women became MPs after the 2019 and the 2021 federal elections—that’s good news.

      But the increase was minimal: from 98 women in 2019 to 103 women out of 338 MPs in 2021—hardly worth boasting about. 

      Currently, only 30.5 percent of MPs are female, even though just over 50 percent of Canadians are women. As of May 2022, Canada ranks 59th in the world for female representation in parliament, below countries like Cameroon, Chile, Spain, and Senegal.

      As a collective, MPs don’t reflect the Canadian population that they are elected to serve. That needs to change.

      Scholars and journalists have identified many long-standing reasons for the gender imbalance, such as parental-leave policies and the tendency to nominate women in less winnable ridings. But another problem is newer, getting worse, and needs our immediate attention: online abuse and harassment of women political candidates.

      In 2019, I was part of a team that examined online abuse of all political candidates during the federal election. We developed a machine-learning model that classified all the tweets at political candidates as positive, neutral, or low/medium/high negativity. By negativity, we meant something that attacked candidates for their identity, not robust discussion around policies.

      Sadly, but unsurprisingly, our research found only seven percent of tweets were positive, while 16 percent were abusive and around 40 percent negative.

      We also interviewed 31 candidates and campaign staff to understand how online abuse affected campaigning. One NDP MP, Jenny Kwan, noted that abuse and misinformation often intertwine, telling us that “misinformation is often the first step. Then it can escalate to an attempt to generate negativity—and hatred—towards certain groups of people.”

      Former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes described how online abuse increased whenever she garnered greater public attention, particularly after she started to discuss her experiences of discrimination as a Black female politician.

      Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May worried that harassment “leaves decent people out of the space because it’s so unpleasant to be in it”. Some candidates also expressed regret that they now had to use social media as a bulletin board rather than a space to engage with constituents.

      Overall, we found that online abuse exacerbates distrust in politics and presents another barrier to political participation by people from under-represented groups. 

      Unfortunately, surveys indicate the problem of online abuse is worsening and certain types of abuse are likelier to affect women than men.

      In a 2021 survey, 39 percent of female and 32 percent of male journalists said they experienced online harassment at least once a month. Seventy-eight percent of female journalists said in 2021 that online harassment has increased in frequency during the past two years.

      Women were nearly twice as likely to receive sexualized messages or images and six times as likely to receive threats of rape or sexual assault. LGBTQ2+ and those with multiple marginalized identities receive the most harassment.

      What can be done?

      Along with Chris Tenove, we published a report making a wide range of recommendations for how to address this situation.

      First, candidates and campaign teams need to develop proactive plans to manage harassment. Candidates should also communicate norms for productive online discourse to their own supporters to discourage them from abusing opponents.

      Second, political parties should ensure that they provide training and resources to candidates that also address candidates’ diverse experiences and risks.

      Third, social media platforms need to improve their transparency and be more responsive to threats, particularly during elections.

      Fourth, policymakers can create regulations that mandate transparency from platforms, push for more effective content moderation, and provide support to groups addressing online abuse.

      Finally, individual users can consider their own behaviour online and how far their knee-jerk comments or retweets might be contributing to the problem. They can also think about how to support those who are experiencing abuse.

      Canada has had female MPs for over 100 years. Yet Switzerland, where women only gained the right to vote in 1971, comes closer to parity with 42.5 percent female parliamentarians.

      If parliament’s composition is ever going to reflect the Canadian population, we need to address the full range of issues keeping women from running and winning.

      Heidi Tworek is a Canada Research Chair and associate professor in international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia.