Scale of abuse received by MPs revealed in investigation of toxic tweets

Released this week were results from an investigation conducted by the BBC Shared Data Unit on abusive tweets directed at Members of Parliament in the UK. There are some potential issues with this study, however it effectively demonstrates the general picture of toxic social media abuse received by MPs. Society can hopefully learn from this and start to make changes to protect MPs from this kind of abuse in the future.

Investigation results

From a sample of 3 million tweets, 130,000 tweets could be classified as ‘toxic’, and 20,000 as ‘severely toxic’. The BBC Shared Data Unit used the artificial intelligence tool ‘Perspective’, and revealed that a staggering 3,000 offensive tweets are directed at MPs every day.

Social media abuse is a relatively new issue MPs have to face. Prior to the current age of social media, people could contact their MP by email, posting a letter, telephoning, or attending speeches, events or protests. These forms of communication require much more effort than simply posting on social media. A tweet can be typed out and posted online within a matter of seconds, explaining the vast number of tweets that are made to MPs every day.

Furthermore, social media abuse can be sent anonymously, and is always sent from behind a screen. This level of privacy gives people more confidence to direct abuse towards MPs. It provides a level of disconnect which makes it easier for people to objectify MPs, losing a sense of shared humanity by forgetting that they are people as well as politicians. This decreases the respect and compassion shown towards MPs on social media, explaining the high levels of twitter abuse.

The kind of abuse you will suffer online – and certainly on Twitter – means Twitter is not the place to have a debatestated MP Jess Philips.

The study also found that in the tweets they analysed, female MPs were more likely to be called ‘stupid’ and be over-sexualised than male MPs.

Just part of the job?

As part of the job, MPs sign up to receive a certain level of criticism. An MP’s role is to represent their constituents so it is vital that people can voice their opinions on whether they are being effectively represented in parliament and policy making. The ability of the people to hold MPs accountable for their actions is vital to our democracy, None the less, there is a line to be drawn when feedback turns from criticism to unfounded abuse.

The tweets flagged as toxic in this study were generally fictional, or attacks on an MPs personality, moving beyond critique of their political performance. It is unreasonable to believe an MPs should be subject to such abuse as part of their job, especially when this is characterised by over-sexualisation and threats. The discrepancy between the abusive tweets received by female and male MPs further confirms that this abuse is not just feedback.

To take this even further, it could be claimed that this abuse is comparable to workplace bullying and harassment that can occur in any employment. MPs derive their legitimacy as representatives from the support of their constituents. They can also ‘fire’ MPs by removing them from their job at general elections. This essentially makes constituents the bosses of MPs. If you take this stance, the abuse directed at MPs by members of the public becomes comparable unlawful workplace bullying and harassment.

Impacts of online abuse

Such online abuse can have two major impacts on MPs. Firstly, abuse can damage an MP’s well-being. All forms of bullying can affect a person’s happiness, so the intense amount of personal abuse that MPs are receiving through social media on a daily basis could be very damaging.

My mental health is much improved since I’ve come off it” says Flick Drummond, who quit twitter in 2021 due to online abuse she received.

Secondly, this kind of abuse can influence policymaking by changing the way that MPs act in parliament. Labour MP Jess Philips spoke on this, claiming that she knows MPs that have acted against personal beliefs to reduce the abuse they receive. This abuse often contains strong threats, and an MPs details and location are generally widely known, making the threats feel like a real possibility. This may increase the chance that MPs will attempt to avoid abuse by changing the way they vote.

This effect is damaging to our democracy. Abuse has the power to influence our policy making and MPs are no longer always free-thinking representatives, but act through fear as agents for angry internet trolls.

 “That’s not based on listening to the public and engaging with the public’s experience – it’s just responding to a fear of abuse from a minority of very loud trolls” claimed MP Jess Philips.

Problems with the study

There are some issues with the study. Any statistical method has a margin of error, meaning that the results produced by this study are an estimate, not exact reflections of the situation. However, the study still clearly shows there is a general picture of too much damaging social media abuse against MPs.

There have also been accusations that the algorithm used to analyse the 3 million tweets was not reliable in detecting all kinds of abuse. In particular, it was not programmed to detect the use of racial slurs, meaning the conclusion of the study that ethnic minority MPs aren’t more likely to receive toxic tweets may not be reliable.

Regardless of these flaws, the study still provides a general picture of toxic social media abuse sent to MPs, and we can hopefully learn from this and start to make changes to protect MPs from this kind of abuse and threats in the future.

Image by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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