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Let us prioritise online safety for women parliamentarians for healthier democracies

Written by Dr Kiran Hassan |

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is examining what needs to be done to combat online harassment and violence against women in politics.

Photograph of From Left to Right: Stephen Twigg, Dame Maria Miller MP, Yasmin Qureshi MP, Fasiha Hassan MP, Jennifer Robinson and Professor Kingsley Abbott.
L-R: Stephen Twigg, Dame Maria Miller MP, Yasmin Qureshi MP, Fasiha Hassan MP, Jennifer Robinson and Professor Kingsley Abbott.

Online harassment and violence against women parliamentarians is a global challenge. 

Several studies by organisations like UNESCO, Amnesty International, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the International Court of Justice, and the Democracy Institute, have mapped out this growing threat. After the COVID lull, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and its partners are restarting this conversation within an advanced information-sharing eco-system, that includes influential big tech companies; legal systems being exploited as weapons; confused governments; and a surge in unchecked, unmanaged online abuse targeting women parliamentarians.

To discuss this, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies hosted an event on 20 March with the CPA and High Commission of Canada, where former Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna shared her harrowing experience of online abuse while fighting for climate justice. Ms McKenna’s experience and concerns were echoed by an impressive panel including, Dame Maria Miller MP, Yasmin Qureshi MP, Fasiha Hassan MP (Youngest MPL & Portfolio Committee Chairperson in Gauteng Provincial Legislature, South Africa), and Australian barrister, Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers. The discussion, moderated by Stephen Twigg, Secretary General of the CPA, advocated for a safe and protected online environment for women parliamentarians. 

The panel argued that unchecked online harassment and violence is discouraging young women from joining politics, endangering inclusivity, equal participation and gender representation in parliaments and democracies. A collectivist approach at a global level is required to check, resist and raise awareness to address this problem. 

Often, online and offline violence gets blurred, with victims suffering profound impacts on their mental health and public performance. Women parliamentarians from ethnic minorities and those belonging to different races and faiths face an even higher level of online harassment and violence, with many receiving threats and hate speech.

The need to call out social media platforms that exacerbate misogynistic online cultures and sexually charged disinformation campaigns was also highlighted as needing attention. Powerful social media companies have problematic business models that encourage misogynistic trolling for profit. Ensuring female politicians can continue to voice their views and opinions, despite facing threats, blackmail and the potential for AI-generated deepfake content to be weaponised against them, was regarded as a pressing priority by the speakers. 

Governments and their regulators are ineffective in addressing online harms due to inadequate law enforcement responses, weak political infrastructure and limitations within existing legal provisions concerning gender-based violence and cybercrime laws. Defamation and anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws are sometimes weaponised to silence and intimidate victims rather than punish the perpetrators of online crime. 

Coordinated and targeted online harassment attacks have been noticed to be initiated within parliaments, either from the opposing political party or opposing political candidates. In-house parliamentary regulatory bodies can encourage or implement structural checks to curtail this mal-practice for ensuring healthier parliaments.  
 
As we step into 2024 – a record-breaking election year where 50 countries across the world are holding elections and more than half the world is going into polls, social media is being used and misused to propel political agendas and campaigns at a phenomenal level. At the same time, social and synthetic media eco-systems have become largely unmanageable and unregulated with misinformation undermining facts and authenticity. This is happening under the watch and green light from all too-powerful tech companies. In this jungle of social, synthetic and AI-driven deep fake media, keeping female politicians’ voices alive is critical because, as Madeline Albright said, violence against women in politics is not only a threat to women, but also a threat to democracy.

The author is a coordinator Freedom of Expression Digital Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and can be approached at: mnarik@hotmail.com

Watch our interviews with panellists from the event here: Combatting online harassment and violence against women parliamentarians - panel interviews (youtube.com) [external link]