Why Scotland must address the brutality of digital culture for women in Scottish politics in wake of Nicola Sturgeon resignation
This growing “brutality” is nowhere more obvious than in online political spaces - and it is deeply gendered. The torrent of abuse and harassment directed at women politicians serves to intimidate and silence them. The departure of Nicola Sturgeon offers an important opportunity to reflect on the nature – and extent – of the online vitriol she, and other women politicians endure, and identify immediate steps to stop the ongoing erosion of women’s right to participate in political life fuelled by technology-facilitated misogyny.
This isn’t new - or just a Scottish problem. Gender-based violence is ubiquitous online, severely impacting women’s freedom to make equal use of the digital public sphere. It includes threats of physical or sexual violence, sexist comments, abusive language, posting intimate images without consent and doxxing - posting someone’s personal details. Women
politicians particularly face appearance-based abuse and threats of sexual violence. Depressingly, a 2016 Inter-parliamentary Union report found that 82 per cent of women parliamentarians had received violent threats, primarily via social media, and, in 2017, Amnesty International revealed that one abusive tweet was sent to a woman politician every 30 seconds
Unsurprisingly a key aggravator is intersecting discrimination by race, age, disability and sexuality. Amnesty’s research confirmed that black women in politics are 84 per cent more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive tweets, while MP Diane Abbott received 45 per cent of all the abusive tweets recorded against MPs before the 2017 general election.
Despite this, woman and people from minoritized groups working in public-facing roles are required to be increasingly visible – and accessible – in digital spaces, often at great personal cost.
A toxic culture
Our digitally-mediated political sphere in Scotland continues to worsen in tone and content.
In her speech to the Royal Society of the Arts on Monday, the outgoing First Minister reflected, “social media is creating an environment that is harsher and more hostile, particularly for women and those from minority communities than at any time in my political career.”
At Engender we have been working with partners Elect Her and Women 50:50 on the Making It Happen for 2027 campaign to increase the number of women councillors by the next local elections. We have spoken to hundreds of women who are current or former councillors who tell us that online abuse and discrimination is causing a growing recruitment and retention issue, with many citing it as a key reason why they have left, or intend to. One current councillor told us “You get a lot of social media abuse… and sometimes I just generally feel unsafe within the council environment… doing my own duties.”
The impact – and intention – of online misogyny on women politicians is ultimately to silence them. The sustained onslaught can too often cause women to walk away and makes it harder for us to encourage new and younger women to pursue politics. If this continues without tangible change, the quality of our democracy is at risk.
Where does responsibility lie?
Social Media platforms have been under increasing pressure to establish regulation and reporting mechanisms that better uphold women’s rights, but progress seems to have stalled on some platforms. Worrying reports reveal that Twitter features designed to protect users from harassment are no longer functional following changes in leadership.
Online platforms and services must engage with specialists in gendered digital violence to better understand their own role in upholding women’s right to participate without fear of abuse. They must integrate the VAWG Code of Practice developed by Glitch, End Violence Against Women, which contains key guidelines for decision-makers, founded on international standards and obligations.
To identify why such toxicity continues to thrive in the face of years of research and expert groups raising the alarm, we must also follow the money. Gendered disinformation and trolling actually benefits platforms, profiting from clickbait headlines and engagement metrics, and encouraging new forms of technology-facilitated gendered abuse.
The upcoming UK Online Safety Bill has potential to ensure platforms are better held to account. Scottish Government must work with the UK Government to strengthen sanctions against those who target women politicians.
Regrettably, the normalisation of digital gendered abuse means that women expect – and are too often expected – to manage it alone. For a few, employers might invest; Glitch’s Ripple Effect report revealed that only nine per cent of respondents received training on staying safe online while working from home during lockdown.
Where women are expected to maintain digital visibility for their job, employers have a duty of care towards their safety and wellbeing and should view this as a Health and Safety concern. Employers must introduce measures to mitigate work-related harassment, and tailor interventions to protect at-risk workers.
For women politicians in Scotland, councils, parliaments and political parties must act to protect their welfare – investing in targeted support for women candidates and representatives to manage online misogyny, redoubling efforts to strengthen accountability, and improve reporting pathways for survivors.
To address online gendered abuse and exclusion of women from power, we need sustained, coordinated action across industries, in policy and legislation to create an equitable digital public sphere. Women already bear the brunt of technology-facilitated misogyny - they should not be left to find solutions alone.
•Dr Miranda Barty-Taylor is a researcher at the Equal Media & Culture Centre for Scotland.
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