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TVNZ political reporter on how social media affects politics

When it comes to women politicians, social media manifests all the misogyny of a witch trial, says 1 NEWS political reporter Andrea Vance.

A bitch. Face of evil. Fat. Snobby cow. Oxygen thieving c*.

Shocking, yes? Actually, what’s shocking is the above are examples of the volley of online abuse lobbed at our female politicians – daily.

Social media is a powerful electioneering tool, allowing candidates to bypass traditional media to speak directly to voters. But voters talk back.

And what many are saying is vitriolic and misogynistic. London MP Diane Abbott is celebrated as Britain’s first black woman MP. In February, she said she wouldn’t have entered politics if she knew the abuse women take.

“I’ve had death threats, I’ve had people tweeting that I should be hung if they ‘can find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’, there was ...‘#BurnDianeAbbott’, I’ve had rape threats, been described as a ‘pathetic useless black fat piece of shit’, ‘ugly fat black bitch’, and ‘nigger’ over and over again,” she revealed.

The University of Sheffield uncovered the scale of the abuse by analysing 840,000 tweets directed at politicians during this year’s toxic British general election.

The bulk of nastiness was directed at a small number of prominent politicians, significantly more of whom are male. But the study also revealed that women endured many more gendered insults (witch, slut etc). Such was the concern that Westminster agreed to hold an inquiry.

I don’t need an inquiry to tell me what I see every day: New Zealand’s female leaders are frequently targeted.

Metiria Turei’s recent benefit fraud confession sparked a digital witch trial. Jacinda Ardern’s sparkle has reversed Labour’s fortunes. She’s now the star of the election campaign and because she’s a woman, I’m worried online hate speech will now spiral out of control.

TVNZ political reporter Andrea Vance
TVNZ political reporter Andrea Vance

Recently, I reported on a trial in Whanganui. Deputy prime minister Paula Bennett was threatened with sexual violence in a Facebook post. “See you soon, bitch” her critic wrote underneath a picture of a sex toy with her name scrawled on it and a link to an article on sexual violence.

But, it wasn’t the author who was on trial. He was a witness and a protester who’d thrown a dildo at a car she was a passenger in – the driver MP Chester Borrows was later cleared of careless driving.

But hearing the evidence, I found myself wondering why it wasn’t the Facebook poster in the dock instead. I covered the passage of the Harmful Digital Communications Act (pioneered by another female politician: Judith Collins).

How could this not apply to such a vile – and blatant – threat? It’s mostly because we women are conditioned to ignore online harassment.

Don’t feed the trolls, we’re told. I’ve brushed off plenty of sexist (usually poorly spelt) comments. Strangers ‘mansplain’ my job to me, in the rudest terms, on a daily basis.

Block and mute are my friends. I and many of my female Gallery reporters (we outnumber the men, by the way) will turn off our notifications while we are on the campaign trail. Your loss, men!

It’s a coping strategy we’ve learned from the women politicians we report on. Because otherwise, our most powerful women are powerless in the face of the vilest hate speech. Even if they do kick up a fuss, online platforms (yes, Twitter and Facebook) are unhelpful.

But that’s avoiding the problem not confronting it. Why are abuse, threats, and nastiness treated less seriously when tapped into a keyboard? The words don’t have less impact because they’re written not heard.

Society has created a culture where this kind of frightening and hurtful behaviour is abhorrent in a social setting or workplace. So why do we allow bullies to be insulated by internet culture, while the cleverest women feel unsafe or avoid political debate?

Women make up less than one third of our Parliament. We need to lift the threat of constant online attacks before any more walk away from politics.

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