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Irish politicians from minority backgrounds suffer more online abuse

Analysis of tens of thousands of tweets shows that people of colour and LGBT+ politicians endured the highest number of abusive remarks online


Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu. Photo: Naoise Culhane

Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu. Photo: Naoise Culhane

Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu. Photo: Naoise Culhane

Irish politicians from minority backgrounds are getting more abuse than their colleagues on social media, according to an investigation by the Irish Independent.

Analysis of tens of thousands of tweets sent to more than 20 politicians over the course of three months shows that people of colour and LGBT+ politicians endured some of the worst online abuse.

An investigation into tweets sent to politicians in March, April and May showed that Fintan Warfield, the Sinn Féin senator, and Hazel Chu, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, were sent the highest number of abusive remarks online.

In some cases, the comments repeatedly came from the same accounts. Since the Irish Independent alerted Twitter to the abuse, the social network has taken action against a number of accounts.

Ms Chu, the Green party politician, was born in Dublin and her parents are from China. She was targeted with sustained racist abuse from a small number of accounts.

Mr Warfield, a member of the LGBT+ community, was targeted with homophobic abuse which at times conflated homosexuality with paedophilia.

In one week in April, over 10pc of all tweets sent to Ms Chu were clearly abusive and in most cases racist. Of the 311 tweets sent directly to her that week, 34 were abusive.

In one day, one single account sent Ms Chu 14 different messages. Some were abusive and some were not, but contact from this account was persistent across a number of months.

In one case, a troll used a picture Ms Chu posted of her and her daughter enjoying a blossom tree as an opportunity to abuse her. In a number of cases Ms Chu was told to “go back” to China, or that she was not really Irish.

Two accounts trolling Ms Chu were reported by the Irish Independent well over six months ago. They were suspended for abuse and harassment after the newspaper contacted Twitter and asked for a comment.

Out of the 77 tweets sent to Mr Warfield over the course of one week, 21 were abusive and homophobic. In one case, the Irish Independent reported to Twitter a tweet which called Mr Warfield a “paedo lover” but no action was taken. After the newspaper contacted it, the post was removed.

Last July, Mr Warfield temporarily had to make all of his and his partner’s social media accounts private following a spate of abuse. It appeared to follow a speech in the Seanad where he advocated for transgender healthcare for teenagers.

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In one comment on Instagram, a troll told Mr Warfield that he would be “removed, mark my words”. The senator told the Irish Independent that Twitter should take action against homophobic abuse before it is forced to by legislation.

“It’s become so toxic that Twitter is basically the most homophobic and transphobic space in most people’s lives,” he said.

Both Ms Chu and Mr Warfield suffered the worst online abuse when they were talking about issues relating to racism and LGBT+ rights respectively. There were 27 abusive tweets against Mr Warfield over three months, while 41 abusive tweets were sent to Ms Chu over the same period of time.

Ms Chu said that being the politician who was sent the most online abuse was like “winning a competition that you would never want to win”.

“People tell me to just turn it off or not pay attention, but Twitter is part of the job for politicians now. And why does it have to be the people who are being abused who have to ‘turn it off’? Why isn’t it the abusers?” she said.

“It’s Twitter’s job to make sure the platform is safe, and to investigate abusive accounts. We need to protect freedom of speech, absolutely, but there is a difference between free speech and coordinated attacks.”

Because of the volume of tweets sent to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, posts sent to him were analysed over the course of two weeks: one in March, and one in May.

Mr Varadkar was sent a high volume of critical tweets, but only 20 crossed the threshold into abusive: using threats, personal slurs or deeply offensive remarks. While 20 abusive tweets were recorded being sent to him over the two weeks, there were also a significant number of positive tweets sent by members of the public who were grateful for the State’s early response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Analysis of tweets sent to Mr Varadkar, who was Taoiseach at the time of the analysis, found that he also suffered racist and homophobic abuse. Of 11 abusive tweets which were sent to him in one day, three used homophobic slurs and one was racist.

Tweets sent to the following prominent politicians from the last Dáil were also monitored: Mary Lou McDonald, Micheál Martin, Ronan Mullen, Lynn Ruane, Simon Harris, Peadar Tóibín, Bríd Smith, Jack Chambers, Eoin Ó Broin, Alan Kelly and Róisín Shortall.

By the end of May, Mr Harris, the former health minister, and Mr Varadkar were enduring an increase in more abusive tweets – many of which were from conspiracy theorists claiming Covid-19 was fake. There was an increase in abusive conspiracy tweets sent to Mr Harris after he shared a video of a young man talking about how his mother had died from Covid-19.

A spokeswoman for Twitter said it has “clear abusive behaviour and hateful conduct policies in place – that apply to everyone, everywhere – and we take enforcement of these policies very seriously.

“We welcome people to freely express themselves on our service, however, as outlined in our hateful conduct policy, users cannot promote violence against, threaten or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.

“We remain deeply committed to improving the health of the conversation on the service and in that respect we continue to prioritise the safety of people on Twitter."

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