Tory leadership contest already degenerating into online abuse.

One of the reasons there is a lot of solidarity among women in politics is that we all have to put up with a lot of the same crap.

We have to deal with people thinking that they have the right to say things to us about our appearance, our behaviour and our beliefs than they would ever dare to say to another man.

So when I saw Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach tweet a horrible message (which she has since deleted) she’d had from a male Tory MP, my first thought was sympathy for her.

At the tail end of the coalition, I actually felt I was going to completely go under at one point with all the abuse I was getting. And the worst was from fellow Lib Dems telling me what a disgrace I was. The pro-coalition people didn’t think I was loyal enough to Nick Clegg. The anti-coalition people thought I was too slavishly loyal to Nick Clegg.  And I got it at full pelt from both sides.

A year or so later, I wrote about the experience, and this seems to be a good time to reprise that here:

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.

Tonight, though, some good has come out of the abusive message Annette Sandbach received. We have all learned a wonderful new epithet, #completewankspangle. I’ll remember that one in case I ever need it.

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

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20 Comments

  • I’m confused. (Not least because only one of the three relevant links actually works)

    A Conservative MP (unidentified) sent Sandbach a message which she felt was offensive. But what was it? And where does “completewankspangle” fit into the story?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Jun '19 - 11:22pm

    She’s since deleted the photo of the message she had received which basically told her she was a disgrace and should get out of the party.

    The other two links work for me. The #completewankspangle was in her tweet describing what had happened to her.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Jun '19 - 12:13am

    A really fabulous piece from Caron, that, includes the reference to the article from before, familiar to some of us, that explains and leads some of us to have come to relate better to the extent of the moderation policy on this site.

    It is unbelievable how the remarkable invention that is this internet we are on now, has unleashed a tendency, no, a too soft a word for an attitude ghastly, that the same would not perhaps reveal if in person. Some colleagues here are suspicious of anonymous postings, these worry little, as they could be a sign of free thinkers, reserved in approach or shy, or in jobs where they are cautious re: political allegiance being public knowledge. The behaviour referred to here in this piece is of a sort that would make anyone out of sorts! It is to the author of this piece’s credit, to continue here with this article and demolish the irresponsible who are responsible for this abusive attitude.

    Jo Swinson has written and spoke recently about how social media degenerates. She is a keen and eloquent champion for technology, also aware of its dangers. Too many in our party are a little libertarian on some aspects of online hideousness. We do not need a snoopers charter from government, we need a sense of responsibility from people.

    like Antoinette Sandbach as a person she seems as impressive and appealing as her name is. No wonder she is on the receiving end of the bile referred to here, from mps representing a tendency in the present Tory party that is as with that in Labour, pushing extreme and rather worrying barriers down, towards levels of expression becoming nastiness.

    As a party, there is no room for us being holier than thou, but plenty of indication of us being better than this.Long may we all see it continue.

  • John Marriott 21st Jun '19 - 7:35am

    If only someone would uninvent Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. I wouldn’t touch any of them with a barge pole! You know what they say about “sticks and stones”. Social media brings out the worst in people, it destroys interpersonal relationships – just look at the number of young couples in restaurants on their mobiles rather than being engaged in conversation, or parents engrossed on texting while their youngsters…are often doing the same if not just being ignored! And then there’s drivers, even lorry drivers, texting while at the wheel! What is society coming to?

  • I too am confused, without the photo of the offending message. No-one would defend sexist abuse or derogatory comments on someone’s appearance.

    But being told you are a disgrace and should leave the party – presumably for a political reason – isn’t sexist or related to someone’s appearance. It isn’t pleasant, but that’s it; hardly a reason for reproducing in print an older and clearly unacceptable string of comments?

    Anyone in politics should expect to meet with criticism.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Jun '19 - 8:07am

    @JohnMarriott Don’t rush to judgement on people being on their phones in restaurants. My son has Autism and sometimes finds the noisy atmosphere in restaurants and public places too overwhelming. So he’ll put on his headphones and we’ll talk to each other on our phones. A few years ago that would have been impossible, but to an observer it would look as if we were all on our phones ignoring each other.

    And, John, my earlier article was titled “Online abuse can’t break your bones but it can break your spirit.” Never underestimate the effect of this stuff.

    @ian Criticism is one thing – telling someone they are a disgrace and shouldn’t be in the party simply for voting a different way in a leadership election is not on and I am mystified that anyone should think it is ok.

  • Jayne Mansfield 21st Jun '19 - 8:19am

    @ Caron Lindsay,

    First of all, congratulations on your bravery. You won through.

    It must be horrendous having to face the sort of abuse you faced. It is very easy to say things like, it is they, the abusers who have the problem, not you, but that does not alter the misery inflicted and deeply felt , that are the consequence of their actions. Nevertheless, despite being a sensitive soul, (and we need more like you), you proved what many of us know, that, real strength comes from sensitivity to the feelings of others and an ability to empathise.

    Unfortunately, we probably can’t change the behaviour of the perpetrators of intended harm, but we can change the system in which they operate by practical means. You have done that by continuing to carry on despite the malevolence.

    The system can also be changed in more fundamental ways. Stella Creasy’s current good news has brought to prominence the unique ways in which women have a particular problem in fighting to combine motherhood and a right to a voice at high levels in society, something that Ruth Bright has highlighted on here.

    The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. .. potentially. So rock on Caron.

  • Caron LindsayCaron Lindsay 21st Jun ’19 – 8:07am……………[email protected] Criticism is one thing – telling someone they are a disgrace and shouldn’t be in the party simply for voting a different way in a leadership election is not on and I am mystified that anyone should think it is ok…………

    I agree with your ‘is not on’ sentiment but neither is it in any way ‘sexist’.. It’s just a nasty comment!.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Jun '19 - 11:29am

    Caron Lindsay | Thu 20th June 2019 – 11:00 pm
    If you are receiving criticism form two sides it may balance and you are doing it right.
    The earliest source of this opinion was a former President of Mexico.

  • Everyone seems to agree there is a major problem with the internet. The problems caused by bullying on the internet for example are very well publicised.
    I see every day the games that are being sold. I see them not because I play them, but there often adverts for them which are shown before whatever it is I want to see. The graphics are brilliant, and often the only aim is to kill as many people as possible.
    Does this mean that the users will go out and kill people? This is well rehearsed in the media.
    To me the real danger is the growth of the idea that the internet is not real life, and so
    standards apply.
    The question I have is what could be done to identify and solve the problem.

  • John Marriott 21st Jun '19 - 1:08pm

    @Caron Lindsay
    OK, I take your point. However, it still drives me, and my wife mad, when close family members, when visiting us with their children, prefer to be on their iPhones than to respond to our attempts to initiate conversation. I call that rude; but, what do I know?

  • jayne mansfield 21st Jun '19 - 4:06pm

    There may be very good reason why people are using their mobile phones or wearing headsets in situations that observers find puzzling, but art has a way of providing new insights into some of the potential social effects of our addiction to technological communication. Images are available by googling:-

    Removed: Photographer removes mobile phones from his photos to show how terribly addicted we have become.

  • David Becket 21st Jun '19 - 5:50pm

    If I write an offensive letter to the press it will not get printed, the Editor will not accept it.

    If I want to use a nom be plume in my published letter I can do so. I will need to supply a real name and address, but it will not be published.

    When I write to the press I either write on paper or key the words into a computer and send them off.

    When I write to a Social Media account I key the words into a computer and send them off.

    The only difference between a paper letter and a social media article is that the publisher does not edit a social media account.

    It is nonsense to claim that the provider of a Social Media service is not a publisher. The only difference is the medium, paper or electronic.

    The answer to these problems is to make the Social Media provider responsible for the content of the site.

    They will cry blue murder. Rubbish! They are making immoral profits from these sites,
    It is time stop this nonsense and make them responsible for content.

    I am a Liberal. I am not attacking free speech but I am supporting the vulnerable in our society and those who stick their heads above the parapet.

  • Sometimes I despair. The article is about online abuse and Caron, quite righly, expanded it into the sphere that women get a raw deal on the internet. She didn’t say that what happened to Antoinette was sexist just straight forward abuse.
    In the run up to the Euro elections I boosted a Facebook post about our position in the opinion polls. The resultant comments were vile. We now live in a society where name calling is moving from social media into the streets. In the last few years I’ve heard more and more racial and sexist abuse in the streets. Things had got better but we’re almost as bad as it was in the 70s.
    Part of this is the far-right getting its voice back but it’s also ourselves. I constantly have to remind fellow Liberal Democrats to ‘play the ball not the man’. I hear too many Remainers calling Leavers stupid. We may disagree with people but that’s not an excuse for name calling.
    Respect for each other should be a minimum expectation. Attack the policies not the person.

  • Jayne Mansfield 22nd Jun '19 - 9:35am

    @ pmknowles,
    Spot on.

    Perhaps we ought to stop considering the sort of abuse and vile comment as simply a phenomenon of something that is exclusive to the internet and wake up to the fact that it is becoming normalised within society.

    One does not need to hide behind a nom de plume to be vile and Caron is quite right to expand the argument to the treatment received by women on the internet and now increasingly in society in general.

    The comment by a tweeter who didn’t even feel the need to hide behind a nom de plume, when speaking of MP Jess Phillips that he ‘wouldn’t even rape ‘her is just one example of the sort of comment that is becoming increasingly seen as acceptable by a worrying minority.

    The abuse suffered by black women is not simply restricted to the appalling and disproportionate abuse suffered by Diane Abbott, something that is now worse than anything she has experienced in her three plus decades as a politician. Amnesty International published crowdsourced research that showed that women in politics and journalism and politics are 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive tweets.

    These dog whistle comments are meant to curtail the freedom of women to have a voice.

  • @pmknowles “We now live in a society where name calling is moving from social media into the streets. “

    I agree with others here about this movement in what people think is socially acceptable behaviour. Interestingly, for a change I found last weeks question Time from Tottenham interesting, not because Ed Davey was on the panel (although he was a calm presence – reminded me of Charles Kennedy), but from the way the audience behaved, showing respect towards each other as they made their points.

  • Peter Rothery 23rd Jun '19 - 12:06pm

    Well said Caron. It’s about a lack of empathy which extends to online abuse, violent crime even political discourse now on QT and in Parliament.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Jul '19 - 9:29pm

    ITV hosted a “debate” between the 2 Tory leadership candidates 20.00 – 21.00.
    Boris Johnson’s negotiating abilities were on show, lots of shouting, repeated refusal to answer specific highly relevant questions and a tendency to show off his vocabulary,
    Fungible for example.
    There must be doubt that this style would work with the EU Commission, in which case the UK would be headed for a No-Deal Brexit.
    Jeremy Hunt wants progress on Care for the Elderly, amalgamating it with the NHS.
    BoJo disagrees. On this policy he kicked the tin down the road, which he noisily opposed on other policy.

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