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It’s not just the anonymous trolls: online attacks on women are in plain sight

4 min read

It was last summer, on the third day of people wanting to murder me over an orange lolly, that I began to wonder if my mother was right and I should’ve studied medicine after all.

I’d posted a picture of myself in an East London park captioned with a trio of orange emojis (referencing the lolly, and the orange saddle and wheel of my bike): was an avalanche of death threats and racist abuse. The far-right had decided the emojis were, in fact, intended to mock or celebrate three men who’d been stabbed to death by a Muslim assailant in Reading later that evening. 

It wasn’t my first brush with the more deranged bits of the internet, but the sheer volume of the violence was, even for me, remarkable. People wrote I should be doused in petrol and set on fire; others posted pictures of a noose. On the bright side, I was touched by the number of people who reached out to offer their support - including many who don’t at all share my politics.

According to prevailing consensus, the core issue is that anonymity grants social media users the cover they need to threaten and harass people with impunity. But not everyone has to hide behind anonymity in order to abuse people on the internet. TalkRadio’s Mike Graham has found his verified account - and indeed, his own talkshow - a perfectly suitable platform from which to call me a “bloke with a moustache”, playing on the racialised trope of South Asian women being unfeminine and hirsute.

Not everyone has to hide behind anonymity in order to abuse people on the internet

In December 2019, Tom Newton Dunn - then political editor of The Sun - published an exclusive titled "HIJACKED LABOUR".  The story directed readers to a website that contained a network map, supposedly compiled by ex-intelligence officers, and claimed to expose a “hard-left extremist” cabal that had taken over the Labour Party. It alleged Jeremy Corbyn was at the centre of a nefarious web which included myself, Hamas, and the philosopher Michel Foucault (who to the best of my knowledge has been dead since 1984). 

The "HIJACKED LABOUR" linked graphic included a clickable factfile for each of the 490 individuals or organisations listed, several of which directed readers to extremist far-right sources, including a factfile citing ‘Aryan Unity’ as a source. The Sun took down the "HIJACKED LABOUR" piece the same day without apology or comment.

Women of colour in politics are particularly targeted for online abuse, with research by Amnesty finding that 20 female BAME MPs received 41 per cent of abusive tweets. The combination of sexism, racism and ‘reds-under-the-bed’ anti-leftist paranoia is a potent catalyst for violent fantasies about forcing minorities out of politics. 

In the US, the progressive Congresswomen known as ‘The Squad’ are routinely subject to death threats and harassment. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been labelled an “enemy of freedom” while Ilhan Omar, a Black and Muslim woman, has been the subject of smears alleging she married her own brother. Both women felt particularly at risk during the January 6th attack on the Capitol; being women of colour and on the left had made them the reviled totems of a supposedly stolen democracy.

It’s easy to condemn abuse and conspiracism when it comes from people who aren’t deemed part of the bubble, from anonymous accounts and fringe media outlets. But the "HIJACKED LABOUR" piece was no less unhinged than the 3 oranges episode; the only difference was, this particular flight of far-right fantasy had appeared credible as it was published by a Westminster insider. Similarly, the only thing that elevates Mike Graham above the pseudonymous accounts who spend all day traducing my appearance is that he’s got a blue tick. When the only thing that separates abuse from a troll to that from a journalist is a paycheque, we’ve got to ask serious questions about the culture within our own industry.

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