Online abuse might not break bones, but it can come close to breaking your spirit

The internet is a pretty torrid place at the best of times. Some users delight in throwing rage, bile and abuse around the place. If you are a woman the abuse can be particularly graphic, sexualised and incredibly unpleasant.

In a feature for Radio 5 live, 3 politicians, including our former minister Jo Swinson, talk about their experiences of online abuse and how it affected them. Also taking part are my SNP MP Hannah Bardell and Labour’s Diane Abbott, who gets a whole load of racist bile thrown in just for good measure.

This is fairly routine for any woman who commits the “offence” of going on the internet in possession of an opinion. I’ve come in for it myself and it does wear you down. There was a time a couple of years ago where it really started to affect me badly and reduced me to tears on several occasions. The European elections disaster and the independence referendum combined to create what seemed to be a never-ending spiral of abuse. The most hurtful came from commenters on this site, members of the party, some of whom I actually know in real life, who said some pretty unpleasant personal stuff, but they were just part of it. It felt that wherever I turned, there was nastiness.

It seemed like every time I switched on my PC, I’d find another load in my Twitter timeline and, for a time, it made me feel awful. Apart from the nasty sexualised abuse, I’d have comments about my appearance and my weight. It got to the stage where I feared switching on my laptop. The mere fact that it was stressing me out so much made me feel even worse. How could I be brought so low by random strangers I didn’t care about abusing me online when there are women in the world who risk rape if they try to find somewhere to go to the toilet after dark?

I’m not quite sure how I got through it. One thing was for certain – nobody was going to silence me, so I had no choice.

In the video above, Jo Swinson talks about how she felt realising that if she was reading this stuff about herself, so was her Mum. With that in mind, I shall leave you on a bit of a lighter note.

Almost exactly 3 years ago, Nigel Farage came to Edinburgh. I wrote a piece about his visit and woke up to a comment which just radiated with joy:

I must share with you, Caran, my first thought before skimming this article just looking at your photo –

“What a fat, old looking hag! At least…I think it’s a woman…because those broad set cheekbones really are confusing me.”

I’m SO glad you have boasted of your thick skin, however, so I know with certainty that you are not offended.

Much later, the commenter Tim (no, not THAT one) made up his mind:

However, on that note, I must tell you I have made up my mind. You look less like a woman or a man, than you do a one tonne White Freisian cow…I tell you, to complete the look you just need a ring through your nose. I could take you to a farmer’s market and I’m sure you’d fetch a pretty penny.

I put the edited highlights of what was a very long comment on my personal Facebook page. My family found it absolutely hilarious to the extent that if any of them ever need cheering up, I remind them of it.

As a political blogger, I expect to have my arguments criticised. That’s fine. What nobody deserves is to have their appearance and personality done over by a bunch of bullies.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • What has happened to you and other women is completely unacceptable. As a man I have never been on the receiving end of that level of abuse. I admire your resilience.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd May '16 - 8:42pm

    Shocking. Anonymity should not be possible.

  • Ruth Bright 22nd May '16 - 9:06pm


  • Neil Mackinnon 22nd May '16 - 9:37pm

    So this is terrible and happens disproportionately to women but does happen to men too, although predominantly in a non-sexualised manner. I once advised one friend of mine who was madly impacted by “cybernat ” bullying to just come off Twitter completely. I also think that we should think about removing our images from avatars. It might help words to speak for themselves.

  • I don’ think anything quite like this happens to men. One word of caution though: bearing in mind the outcome of the Criado-Perez case, we shouldn’t automatically assume the people doing this kind of thing are always men.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd May '16 - 10:20pm

    Well done for speaking out Caron. In general I don’t think men receive as much abuse as women and it’s not the women’s fault.

  • I did, and occasionally still do go into a thread that is just nasty stuff targeting a woman. Fairly politely. Can’t remember if I did in any of yours. They sound even worse than some of the ones I did.
    Hope we help each other.
    Some men get similar treatment. Always feel like male comments.

  • I’m really sorry you have had such awful stuff to put up with Caron. Have you considered getting rid of the anonymity postings? I understand Stella Creasy – who may one day ( I hope) lead Labour – has also had to suffer such things.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd May '16 - 11:05pm

    David, Mr Fresian cow guy gave his name:-). So did some of the party members who were horrible and aggressive in a very different way.

    We have looked at anonymity several times but there are some people who need for professional reasons not to give their names – people who have a useful perspective and who shouldn’t be excluded.

  • Stephen Booth 23rd May '16 - 8:22am

    We lost control long ago of this scary beast called the Internet. Not only is it open day for abuse the proprietors are making billions at our expense. I am a small specialist publisher who’s seen his business almost halved since 2008. If I were to publish the sort of views frequently expressed on Facebook and other social media I would quickly find myself in a court of law. What a failure of democracy it is that we’ve allowed this to happen, that we haven’t insisted on proper editing of posts and forced the proprietors to chase away the abusers.

  • I caught the radio programme while driving, and what really struck me was how the worst abuses – we’re talking rape threats and worse – were escalated to the police, who rarely did anything. And as a result the MPs somehow seemed to see it as a price for their roles. Lots of difficult questions for the police in my view – are they taking online abuse at all seriously?

  • Ruth Bright 23rd May '16 - 9:55am

    Isn’t it fascinating how so much of this seems to focus on weight. The US journalist who was trolled about her weight by a man pretending to be her late father (nice) found that the online abuser had a complex about his own size.

    My local party signed up for a svelte PPC (me!) and ended up with a dumpy middle-aged PPC with two little kids in tow (also me!) and it was unbelievable just how rude they were to me about my size – not online but to my face. “Walking Caesarean” etc. There is no way a man would have received equivalent treatment for obvious reasons.

  • So now you understand why we have a fairly strict moderation policy on Lib Dem Voice. What you, the readers, do not see are the appallingly rude comments that some people try to post (mainly about other people, not us), and the abuse we get (usually accusing us of censorship) if we don’t publish those comments.

  • Usual obligatory statement of the blindingly obvious: abuse is wrong and people shouldn’t do it.

    The actual point:
    A sense of narrative here, it is complex and the simplified narrative does nothing to help.

    Men tend to receive more abuse online but care less about it. High profile women often make public statements about, abuse which gives the sort of people who want to post abusive comments a feeling of victory, further aging them on.

    Apparently right wing provocateurs like Douglas Murray receive some very nasty stuff, it is claimed he only mentions it in in public to mock it, as he knows that to show weakness feeds the beast.

    Perhaps more of the discussion should focus on how to effectively manage the situation, we will never achieve a perfect world so we have to learn how to best manage in the one we have.

  • Jayne Mansfield 23rd May '16 - 10:07am

    If someone attacked a person face to face with some of the horrific things that are written on the internet etc., surely there would be a criminal case to answer? Why, if so, does this not apply to someone making such comments that are inescapable, even when one is in the apparent safety of one’s home?

    We all grew up with parents telling us that sticks and stones would break our bones…. , but we were never confronted with the vile abuse that now seems common on social media. If people who post this sort of poison are not criminal, they are sick, either way they need sorting. Minimising the effect such behaviour has on the recipient is simply not acceptable in a civilised society.

    I am sorry that you have been victim to such behaviour, Caron.

  • Jayne Mansfield 23rd May '16 - 10:14am

    @ Psi,
    Whilst I have always been of the opinion that one cannot take responsibility and change the behaviour of others, one can only take responsibility for one’s own response to it, there is something really concerning about this phenomenon.

    Is there any evidence that mocking the perpetrators reduces their activity?

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “Is there any evidence that mocking the perpetrators reduces their activity?”

    To clarify, I am not saying mocking will reduce the activity simply that showing that the abuse is having the desired effect eggs the perps on. If you have to mention it in public then the safest approach is to do so in the form of mockery (the least chance of it being shown to be effective).

    “We all grew up with parents telling us that sticks and stones would break our bones…. , but we were never confronted with the vile abuse that now seems common on social media”

    There have long been people (particularly among the young) who have self-harmed/killed themselves due to bullying well before social media. The issue of psychological damage has always been there, but previousl focus has been on how to deal with the in-person stuff. More development of how to deal with the online stuff is needed. I would point out the most damaging stuff online is from people who know the target (they know what buttons to push), I wouldn’t care if some random called me ugly on the internet.

  • Maybe some of those people who express these awful comments also have problems of their own, although that does not excuse it. Some posts are banned which do not contain any rude comments or personal abuse.

  • Jayne Mansfield 23rd May '16 - 12:22pm

    @ Psi,
    I agree that the most damaging stuff is likely to be from people who know their target.

    In the good/bad old days, I had someone telephone me regularly when my husband was not at home who made a point of telling me what washing I had had on the washing line and other details that informed me that I was being observed. The police advice was to buy a whistle and blow it hard when he rang! I refused to deal with it in that way.

    The reason this sort of thinking is inadequate, these people continue to wander around unchecked, causing fear and distress. I have lived in some dangerous areas abroad, but it is the uncertainty that causes fear. The unknowable means that one can’t make a risk assessment and adapt one’s behaviour accordingly.

    As a politician, public or accessible figure, that is a real concern for those who receive vile and threatening abuse on social media – Is the person a real threat or not ?

    I wouldn’t call the sort of person who makes abusive phone calls of any sort either stable or predictable.

    What developments do you foresee to deal with this phenomenon? I know little of social media and don’t contribute to twitter etc.

    @ nevelope2003,
    I agree , it doesn’t excuse it, and I am mightily fed up with the sympathy that is now accorded to perpetrators rather than victims.

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “As a politician, public or accessible figure, that is a real concern for those who receive vile and threatening abuse on social media – Is the person a real threat or not ?”

    I would consider your example of phone calls directed to your home as genuinely intimidating as there is a level of “targeting” required. Random people commenting on a public speaking platform can simply pick up a link and start saying anything.

    If I were a public figure (or their security) I would be more concerned about the person who sends stuff in the post or worst of all provides no indicator in advance.

    As for technological advances I think the best that will offer is self refining filters somewhat will simply remove the worst (as defined by the account holder) and store the middle stuff until the recipient wants to look at it (in the right frame of mind).

    My concern is that no effort is put in to helping people change the way they think about online messages so they have less effect. In an environment where there is no tone everything has the possibility of being read in many different ways, people are not good at interacting that way.

  • One last point as this thread dies.

    Sadie Smith

    “Always feel like male comments”

    It is interesting that the assumption above that all appear to be “it happens mainly to women” and “it is mainly men doing it” is the assumption you have and when you read any comments you don’t like you will suffering confirmation bias. The location of the comments will have an impact, if you are on a site that has more men commenting than women then the majority of nasty comments will probably be men. But if you spend time on vastly majority female internet spaces they also have their share of unpleasant comments. Even heavily moderated spaces likes Mumsnet or all female Facebook groups for a particular interest will often see behaviour what would be considered “internet harassment.”

    The truth is that men can be nasty, women can be nasty and Men can be nice, women can be nice. And don’t say it too loudly, but perfectly reasonable people can get carried away on the internet. People tend to attack men and women differently online (assuming different comments will hurt different people) but the perps can be either and assumptions won’t tell you much about them.

  • Mike Falchikov 24th May '16 - 6:13pm

    Very interesting and thoughtful contributions on the whole. Anonymity maybe necessary for a few people, but by and large I don’t buy it – it’s often people who think
    it’s clever to be rude and obnoxious “for a laugh” (hee,hee!). It should be made much easier to track these people down – police should take it seriously, as should the law and punishment should follow, such as confiscation of computer. There may be some people with mental health problems, who obviously should be helped, but most of the “trolls” are just silly, immature people who need to face their inadequacies and
    grow up.

  • Mike Falchikov

    “people who think it’s clever to be rude and obnoxious”

    “police should take it seriously”

    That statement is worrying for several reasons, firstly the internet is global so on a purely practical level that is ridiculous, try getting UK police access to US citizens for their speech, or even Russia?

    Secondly when did rudeness become a police matter? Either from a civil liberties perspective or from a resourcing point of view?

    As you and several others have raised anonymity, as Caron points out that is not the limiting factor.

    Also people appear to have an issue with an argument from an anonymous source, as I had to explain the other day if you need to know the proposers details you argument is in part an ad hom, so needs some work.

  • Contd. But if we are talking about harassing someone that crosses legal lines (and is within the UK) as the BBC’s blunder over McAlpine and the fools who jumped in on twitter showed, if it is serious then just because you are online doesn’t put you out of reach of the law.

    Another issue that is also worth mentioning is there are times when someone “feels harassed” but may not be. This happens more now, when someone broadcasts some inflammatory statement and gets a mass of separate single replies, it may be the same message but it is separate people responding to the message broadcast at them.

    The issue of “feeling” and objective reality have to be separated. And again people need to be helped with tools that slow them to deal with a response but the response may not be what it feels like.

  • David Evershed 25th May '16 - 10:22am

    Internet comments reflect society.

    They open our eyes to the fact that there are plenty of ignorant and/or nasty people in the world.

    Our liberal Lib Dem policies need to take account of this fact.

  • Mike Falchikov 25th May '16 - 7:11pm

    Psi. Well, OK I agree that “rudeness” is subjective, but the sort of things that people write about other people on the internet would not be allowed to appear on any other
    media outlet and if this includes actual untruths you would be entitled to redress. I’m
    pretty sure that most of these who put out unpleasant blogs about others do it anonymously because they know they can get away with it. I know it is difficult but
    there is no reason why “social media” should be above and beyond the law (or for that
    matter the norms of civilised behaviour). On the question of policing bloggers in the
    US or Russia, do you really think that there are many people in those countries (or any foreign countries for that matter)taking an interest in LibDem voice? I doubt it.


    “Half of all misogynistic tweets posted on Twitter come from women, a study suggests.”

    This doesn’t surprise me, as someone posted earlier there are good and bad in both men and women. The bit that does surprise me is “A 2014 study from cosmetics firm Dove found that over five million negative tweets were posted about beauty and body image. Four out of five were sent by women.”

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th May '16 - 9:46pm

    Where on earth is spell checker ,?! Should say “African Liberal “

  • Mike Falchikov

    “US or Russia, do you really think that there are many people in those countries (or any foreign countries for that matter)taking an interest in LibDem voice?”
    You appear to be conflating a number of different things. There is the question of communication online and there is the question of comments on LDV specifically. I don’t see a great deal of “abuse” appearing on LDV and when there is unpleasantness I haven’t seen any evidence that it is anonymous comments being a problem on LDV, and that doesn’t appear to be the claim above.

    As for general abuse online That will be people from all over the world, there are certainly lots of Brits who are online saying provocative things and they receive criticism, mocking and abuse from all over the world, to apply the expectations of UK protections from responses to their behaviour from other countries is simply impossible (and I don’t think desirable).

    “there is no reason why “social media” should be above and beyond the law”
    As for whether the law applies the BBC, Sally Bercow, Alan Davies, George Monbiot, and thousands of other twitter followers had a bit of a shock when they thought they were outside of the law if they were online. The ability to take action against someone for defamatory comments is still possible if both parties are in the UK but if your complaint is that it is not easy on line then that is simply a reflection of that fact that it is not easy generally.

    When I want to be safer driving my car I can take two realistic actions, I can drive carefully, and I can try and get a car with the best safety standards I can find. Neither of these will make me perfectly safe on the road but they are actions I can do. We have other road rules which help, but we also have laws about people’s conduct (regardless of whether they are on or off line). The issue is that many complaints about online behaviour come with demands which are equivalent of demanding speed limits of 5mph.

    Life contains risks, people are sometimes rude, nasty or even abusive. But how to deal with this needs to be sensible and accept reality, it is not perfect but nothing is.

  • The other issue that is the simplistic narrative if it has any impact at all will simply hamper getting more women in politics.

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