Opinion

Neanderthals have found a natural home in the tough world of Twitter

Allison Morris 3.jpg

THE internet is a wonderful thing. Infinite wisdom at our fingertips, opening up the world, giving us an ability to study other cultures and communicate with loved ones home and abroad, not to mention shopping for cheap holidays while skiving at work.

It is also open to abuse, unregulated, and practically impossible to police.

Given this, the internet has also become a vehicle for all manner of unsavoury characters who use it to vent their bile, turning weirdos into 'celebrities' and making morons you would normally cross the road to avoid, believe their own hype depending on how many followers they can amass.

Then there are the eternal victims. The people who, if they could hold a tune, would make it to the final of X Factor just on foot of how many sob stories they tell in any one day just so people they've never met, and never will, can tell them 'how brave they are'.

While the 'everyone look at me brigade' may be irritating they're easily blocked. There is however a much uglier side to social networking. Twitter especially has gained a reputation for being a magnet for misogynist abuse, in part due to the ability of users to remain anonymous.

That reputation is not without foundation as events of the last week have plainly shown.

Julie Anne Corr-Johnston, a north Belfast councillor for the Progressive Unionist Party, was subjected to some vile misogynist abuse on Twitter, some of which was sexual in nature prompting her to ask on Twitter was it because "I'm a loyalist or a woman?".

I can answer that. It's because you're a woman Julie Anne because, while I'm certainly not a loyalist, I regularly have similar abuse thrown at me, as do other women who hold public roles from all manner of political and social backgrounds.

We know from the recent Westminster elections when the DUP fielded an all-male team that there is a shortage of women in politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, and who could blame them for being cautious in coming forward.

Trying to represent your community, or having a vocal high profile career, makes you an instant target these days.

The PUP councillor, being forceful, outspoken and of course a woman makes for a full house in misogynist bingo.

Councillor Johnston is also openly gay giving an added dimension - enter the internet homophobes of which there are many.

Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson is regularly subjected to comments about her appearance rather than her ability as a politician.

The few female ministers we have at Stormont regularly are the target of abuse about their appearance rather than their ability.

That's not to say if they neglect their duties or mess up in their ministerial role they shouldn't be subjected to the same scrutiny as their male colleagues and I'll be first in the queue to dish out that criticism.

But I care how Arlene Foster and Carál ni Chuilín are fulfilling the duties they were elected and paid to do, not their hairstyle or weight or what they wore to work that day.

I am a woman who writes about crime and security matters. There are some people - and when I say people I mean insecure men - who would rather I stuck to writing about shoes or home interiors or stay at home and not go out at all.

Northern Ireland is one of the few places where directing sexist abuse at a woman can be justified by the Neanderthals - which also has strong vein of sectarianism - on the ground.

In Scotland tough anti sectarian laws mean the bigoted blogger that fired sectarian abuse at journalist Angela Haggerty and labelled her 'Taig of the Day' encouraging others to abuse her online was jailed.

In Northern Ireland the people who direct sectarian abuse at female politicians or journalists become internet heroes.

There is of course an element of 'if you can't take the heat' and unfortunately a modern peril of the job means that women have to learn to ignore or zone out a fair amount of abuse simply in order to do our jobs, being eternally offended gentle little flowers isn't going to help our cause.

Since the rise of social networking, like other women I've spoken to who hold public posts, I've had to develop a thick skin and be overly enthusiastic with the Twitter block function.

Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long recently posted a YouTube video of her reading out abusive tweets sent to her. She delivered it with such class and humour that she managed to turn the abuse back on the weirdos who sent it.

While it's not always as easy to be dismissive of the hard-core of creeps obsessed with posting sexual innuendo and sectarian comments about the private lives of public figures, I have to say, I like her style.

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