Social Media Harassment of Women Politicians.


For politicians, shaking hands, kissing babies, cutting ribbons and being on the receiving end of angry diatribes from unhappy members of the public, all come with the territory. But women parliamentarians have been speaking up and speaking out about a particularly gendered form of social media bullying, harassment and threats that appear to have become more prevalent. In this roundtable three current or former women parliamentarians discuss the abuse they've encountered, how they've responded to it, and what they believe needs to be done to combat it.

Hon. Cathy Bennett, MHA, Hon. Joanne Bernard, MLA, Hon. Rochelle Squires, MLA

Editor's note: This roundtable contains unparliamentary language and, in particular, a derogatory slur. Prior to publication, the editorial board had a fulsome discussion and debate about whether to run this slur uncensored. Proponents of running the term uncensored noted that Hansard policy is to run slurs in an unedited form. Moreover, as women parliamentarians have had to hear or read these terms while serving the public, there was a sense that it would be hypocritical to censor the words for other readers in an article of this type. Alternatively, some members of the board felt running the slur unedited would revictimize women by perpetuating it and that it was beneath the dignity of the magazine to do it. And, in a very practical matter, it was noted that publishing these terms unedited could influence Web search engines to lower the Canadian Parliamentary Review's ranking on these pages. By way of compromise, we have opted to run the terms with an asterix in place of a vowel to clearly indicate the slur or language being used, but to blunt its impact and eliminate search engine concerns. However, we include this note to explain that our decision to censor was not done without careful consideration and it is a decision we do not take lightly. We invite anyone who disagrees with the decision to send a letter to the editor, and have given all participants in this roundtable the opportunity to write a response which we will print alongside this article if they disagree with our decision.

CPR: I've always assumed that partisan politics and elected office is not for the faint of heart--that if you are working in this environment you'll need to be prepared to face people and constituents who may strongly disagree with what you're doing. But all of you have spoken out about a particular form of social media bullying, harassment or threats that goes well beyond what most people would deem to be fair and respectful dialogue with their political representatives. Is this really a new phenomenon that has come about with social media, or is social media simply a new way to express this kind of hateful speech?

JB: I think what goes hand in hand with this online bullying, which seems to have really increased over the past five to 10 years, is the anonymity that goes with it. The anonymity, combined with the different forms of social media, has escalated this abuse particularly against female politicians. It's made it easy and there is little to no accountability. The perpetrators do what they do, get up and walk away. They don't think about the impact of their words, or their trolling, or their abuse has on the people they're directing it to. I've had these experiences on everything from Twitter, to Facebook, to YouTube. I don't think directing this kind of language towards female politicians is a new phenomenon but I think it's become far more sophisticated.

RS: I know when I first was elected in 2016 I think I had on some rose-coloured glasses that were quickly ripped off my face. I had recently seen some news coverage about Sheila Copps's time in Parliament and how things had evolved since some of these pioneering women were first elected. When I was elected I had this notion that the way had been paved for me--and indeed it has been in many ways. But, although we still had a way to go before achieving parity and full equality, I thought we would still be treated the same as our male counterparts were once we actually go into office.

Within two weeks there was a nasty outrage on Facebook, Twitter and anonymous comments on news sites about me. There was a very legitimate concern being expressed. I was appointed the Francophone Affairs Minister and I was not bilingual. I said I was going to enroll in classes and strive to achieve bilingualism, but at the time of my appointment I was not fluently bilingual. There was a discourse that followed that was legitimate and worthwhile. That's what makes our democracy so strong--when a person holds public office people have the right to give the thumbs up or the thumbs down.

But it quickly devolved to this nasty form of sexual bullying and degradation. I knew I was going to be in for a long haul when I read a comment on CBC's Facebook page that said I had obviously performed a lot of sexual acts to get to where I was because there was no way a woman who looked like me, and talked like me and had my limited abilities could have achieved office on my own. Then there was just this dog-piling on from others about what kind of sexual acts I may or may not have done to get my job.

I slammed my computer shut and my heart was in throat. I was just devastated and mortified. I thought, "Maybe I'm the only one seeing this?" But two minutes later my son walks into the room and says, "Mom, are you seeing what they're saying about you?" That was my induction into being a woman who holds public office. It was only about five per cent of the comments that had degraded me and devolved to this level, but those are the ones I remember.

CB: I was not prepared for how, as Joanne said, social media provided such...

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