Technology

Online abuse of MPs rockets

University of Sheffield analysis shows a hike in online abuse of MPs.

Online abuse of MPs rocketed between 2015 and 2017, fresh analysis of more than one million tweets shows.

Twitter insults aimed at politicians rose from about 10,000 during the 2015 general election to just under 25,000 during the snap 2017 general election, although the number of total tweets also rose in the same period.

The abuse seemed unaffected by party or gender, according to project leader  Professor Kalina Bontcheva from the University of Sheffield department of computer science.

She said: “The increase in abuse towards public figures is a shocking development and one that the UK Government is right to take seriously.

“If people are dissuaded from standing for election, then our representation on a democratic level is under threat.”

Twitter is not doing enough to tackle abuse, said Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth Stephen Doughty.

He tweeted an example of abuse directed at him alongside Twitter’s response that it did not violate policies.

He said: “If you wonder why Facebook, Twitter etc are increasingly becoming difficult places, here’s another example of abuse we get and the response of the social media companies – who think we deserve a different threshold of abuse “to allow discourse”.”

University of Sheffield data
University of Sheffield data

The study shows for the first time that both the proportion and volume of Twitter abuse increased between 2015 and 2017.

Prominent politicians tended to receive a lot of tweets and also a lot of abuse, but lesser-known MPs received proportionally higher levels of abuse.

Boris Johnson’s Twitter timeline was filled with 6.6% abusive tweets in 2015, rising to 9.3% in 2017 and Jeremy Hunt had 4.6% abusive tweets in 2015, rising to 8.55% in 2017.

Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott got 2.5% abuse in 2015, which rose to 3.4% in 2017, whereas Ed Miliband received 5.6% abusive tweets when he was party leader in 2015, which fell to 3.3% on his return to the backbenches.

University of Sheffield data
University of Sheffield data

In 2015, users who tweeted abusive replies were more concerned with the economy, but in 2017 these were concerned with national security in the wake of terror attacks on UK soil.

Prof Bontcheva  added: “Whilst there was a clear increase in abuse on Twitter sent to politicians in the 2017 general election compared to 2015, it was interesting to see the differences in the topics they responded to.

“This clearly shows the different issues that rose to prominence in the two separate elections.”

Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, responding to the research, said: “It is vital that we prevent the rising intimidation of people in public office and those who want to stand for election.

“That is why this government is consulting on new measures that will protect candidates and campaigners standing for public service.

“We can’t let intimidation of people in public life continue unchecked.”

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