A Kinder, Gentler, Politics

A Kinder, Gentler, Politics

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 A number of women’s rights activists launched a fiery attack on the decision of think tank, WebRoots Democracy, to include ‘abusive’ transgender former Labour women’s officer, Lily Madigan, at the debut of its report on online abuse. 

The youth-led think tank launched its latest report, Kinder Gentler Politics, in Parliament on Tuesday (16th) of this week, which aimed to assess the worsening problem of online abuse within the realm of political debate. The lead researchers, Areeq Chowdhury, the organisation’s chief executive, and Khadija Said, researcher, were on the panel alongside the controversial Lily Madigan and Luke Graham MP, a Scottish Conservative politician.

Kinder, Gentler Politics questions whether online abuse affects individuals’ ability to freely express political opinions online without fear of being subjected to hate speech and whether this is, in turn, making involvement with politics online less appealing.

Recommendations from the report centred around four main themes: sanctions, reform, oversight and education. There were eleven in total, and they included:

●   Civil Internet Tax: The introduction of a new, user-based tax on social media giants to fund digital literacy and anti-discrimination initiatives.

●   Ofsoc: The creation of a new, independent regulator called the Office for Social Media Regulation.

●   Digital ASBOs: The extension of anti-social behaviour orders to cover online behaviour with online sanctions.

●   Platform Suspension Powers: The introduction of powers to temporarily suspend social media platforms from operating in the UK as a final sanction for inaction on abuse.

Social media hothouses bad behaviour, in fact, it almost rewards it. While there are moments documented that remind people of kindness and humanity, this features much less prominently than negative behaviour online. When asked how positive behaviour could be amplified, Chowdhury presented disheartening statistics. 

‘66% of tweets in conversations with UK-based political influencers are neutral, but the negatives outweigh the positive at a ratio of 2:1. These platforms are designed to evoke extreme reactions. Something that makes you feel good won’t trigger the same extremity nor will it prompt your engagement as much as something that angers you. People will always react more strongly to confrontation.’ 

It has become widely known that social media platforms have commodified controversy. Contentious content is always pushed to the forefront of users’ awareness because it keeps them on the applications more, thus enabling companies like Facebook and Twitter to sell advertising blocks at higher rates. There is a solid link between the volume of confrontational interactions in these spaces and how user engagement and retention is commodified.

 The Home Affairs Select Committee Hate Crime report of 2017 notes, ‘These companies [Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Youtube] are making substantial profits at the same time as hosting illegal and often dangerous material; and then relying on taxpayers to pay for the consequences. These companies wield enormous power and influence, and that means that such matters are in the public interest.’

When asked how social media could be used to promote safe spaces online, Said suggested emulation of the Reddit model, wherein users can vote ‘up’ on positive posts and create an environment more conducive to healthy political debate. 

‘But it's hard’, she laments, ‘to boost positive content when society is obsessed with the shock factor, even within traditional media. That sort of stuff sells. It's a lot to do with algorithms, but it'll always come back to promoting positivity at the user level. There needs to be a top-down approach in tackling the kind of attitudes that result in online abuse.’

Although controversy has previously meant engagement, especially on topical, political debates, the abundance of negative interactions and online abuse has led to a burn out among users. Chowdhury suggests it is in the interest of social media companies to reduce abuse because recent trends show that many people have taken an active decision to sign off as a consequence and are choosing not to spend time on platforms where this abuse exists. 

On the responsibility of the companies in question to monitor abuse, however, he says, ‘I’d be nervous to give social media platforms the responsibility for what is right and wrong. They tend to have more American values around laws and ideas on hate speech, which is why we need to shift the focus back to the government and states because they’re accountable to and responsible for their citizens and it's in their interest that their citizens know how to speak to each other in a cohesive way.’ 

Said emphasised repeatedly throughout the even, as the focus shifted to the responsibility of social media companies to monitor the behaviour of their users that ‘it comes down to human behaviour. If you want to get rid of online abuse get rid of it offline.’ 

The launch and discussion panel proceeded smoothly until one of the four women’s rights activists, who seemed to know one another loosely, was called on to ask a question. At this point, the women interrupted into an almost coordinated attack on the presence of Madigan on the panel, who had long since left the room. 

 The question, posed by a woman who wished only to be known as Joan, for fear of backlash, was more of a statement:

‘The reason there was so much controversy around one of the panel members was because that person does have a history abusing women.’ 

‘MPs cannot talk about the trans issue and the GRA (Gender Recognition Act) and cannot represent women's rights. One MP said an adviser told him not to attend the meeting this morning because it is so controversial.’ 

‘People are scared to talk about it because of the acts of other MPs. There are MPs being questioned on why they are representing women’s views.' 

‘I think it's odd that you chose to have a transgender person here tonight to speak about the abuse against transgender people and not against women.' 

‘I don't think you had that much abuse on social media yourselves; I think people were just asking you why you chose to have the person you did on the panel.’

While this statement was being made two women stormed to the front of the room, thrusting the print out copies of supposedly abusive tweets targeted at women by Lily Madigan, reading them out as they went. 

After a failed attempt to restore order by Chowdhury, Said stepped in calmly and decisively over the angry roars of the women, ‘we spent six months working on this report and would appreciate if you spent longer than six minutes reading it. The report doesn’t focus on trans abuse, and you’d know this if you read it.’ 

I spoke to Joan after the launch. She was eager to share her views on the decision to host Lily Madigan as well as on the status of women within the emerging reforms to legislation on trans rights. 

‘They made a mistake with the panel choice, [non-trans] women get far more abuse.’ 

‘To focus on trans-abuse [rather than women’s] is abusive.’

‘To be told I must abide by the language of a biological male is offensive.’

‘You can’t legislate other people’s language’ -  a controversial one considering we were at the launch of a report which largely looks at how language is used to abuse people. 

When asked if she would consider herself anti-trans, she responded, ‘I’m not anti-trans at all. Women are a protected characteristic in the equality act in the constitution. Their safety concerns should be taken seriously.”

Joan referred to the case of Karen White - the transgender prisoner who was a convicted paedophile and rapist, who had sexually abused two women in the all-female prison she was placed in - and how this was an example of the harrowing consequences of not prioritising women’s safety within the debate on trans rights.

The disruption of the launch seemed to be the boiling point of increasingly growing frustrations from the women at having their concerns disregarded.

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