Call to tackle ‘trolls’ over abuse of female politicians

DUP MLA Carla Lockhart has said she faces online abuse of a personal nature on a daily basis. Credit: Presseye

Politicians from across party divides are calling for Twitter to do more to tackle abusive online trolls after a female MLA was subjected to slurs over her looks.

DUP Upper Bann MLA Carla Lockhart bore the brunt of offensive and hurtful remarks directed at a post by her party leader.

Arlene Foster tweeted a picture of them both enjoying dinner at a party event in Co Fermanagh on Friday night.

While there were numerous tweets which were critical of Mrs Foster over political issues, many others chose to focus on the appearances of the women – particularly Ms Lockhart.

Backed up by other female politicians, Ms Lockhart called some of the Twitter users out on their behaviour, refusing to accept flimsy excuses used by some to defend the posts.

In a series of tweets, she said: “I see this abuse daily … It’s wrong no matter who it’s directed at.

“I do hope Twitter investigate this. It is not right to abuse anyone for their appearance. You can disagree politically without abusing.”

The PSNI has said that officers are aware of the matter and enquiries are ongoing.

Alliance leader Naomi Long, who has been vocal on the subject of online trolling, also called for Twitter to “take misogynistic abuse seriously and stamp it out on their platform”.

Among her tweets on the subject, she addressed those who felt they should be able to criticise politicians and those who did not appear to see an issue as Twitters offers ‘mute’ and ‘block’ buttons.

“Criticise policy all you want: that’s why we're elected. How we look is not relevant. It’s a means of trying to humiliate and shut people down,” she said.

“Ignoring/blocking/muting is fine, but they move on to target others. I couldn’t care less about their opinion, but they’ll eventually bully someone vulnerable.”

Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill also tweeted Carla Lockhart to commend the DUP MLA for speaking out.

She added: “Abusive, nasty or disrespectful comments towards anyone on social media are totally unacceptable. No one should have to tolerate it.”

Independent MLA and former justice minister Claire Sugden also tweeted to say online trolling, whether targeting elected representatives or anyone else, was unacceptable.

“I’ve experienced it and it’s vile,” she said.

“The nastiness says more about the troll than the person it’s directed at. Have some self-awareness and self-respect and don’t be a bully.”

While it was recognised that personal abuse is not exclusively used to target women, it was acknowledged that the problem of suffering online abuse is more prevalent for women.

A number of male politicians also spoke out in support of their female counterparts.

Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd said the abuse suffered by fellow Upper Bann MLA Carla Lockhart was wrong and must stop immediately.

“I disagree with many aspects of Carla’s politics, but there is no excuse for the online personal abuse she has suffered,” he tweeted.

DUP MP Paul Girvan also tweeted to say that the level of abuse directed at his colleagues Carla Lockhart and Arlene Foster, and many other female public figures, is “totally unacceptable”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also hit out at those responsible.

“There really are some losers on Twitter. Writing abusive tweets to women seems to make them feel big. Twitter needs to put an end to it,” he said.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said online trolling was unacceptable at any level and only encouraged by Twitter permitting anonymous accounts.

He added that directing abuse at elected representatives and people in the public eye was “just too easy for big brave key board warriors”.

  • VIDEO: Professor Siobhan O'Neill speaks to UTV Live about online abuse, following the targeting of DUP MLA Carla Lockhart