Trolled out of office: UBC report examines role of online abuse against politicians and democracy

A new report from researchers at the University of British Columbia attempts to quantify the amount of online hate and harassment received by political candidates.

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest politicians are targets of a lot of online harassment, historian and public policy professor Heidi Tworek and her co-researcher Chris Tenove wanted to gather more concrete evidence by analyzing online messaging directed at political candidates during the during the 2019 federal election.

The team started by looking at 3,000 tweets and coding them as positive, neutral, and between low, medium, and high negativity. They also interviewed political candidates to see how they would classify a tweet.

The tweets that were coded by readers' perceptions were then run through a digital program so the remainder of the tweets could be analyzed by computer.

1 million tweets analyzed

After analyzing one million tweets directed at political candidates, the results were unsurprising, said Tworek.

"We found — perhaps unsurprising [to] people who spent time on Twitter — it wasn't a particularly positive place," Tworek said.

Only seven per cent of tweets directed at politicians were unambiguously positive. A vast majority of the tweets were negative.

"We didn't mean things that engaged in robust policy discussion, but rather things that were attacking people personally on the basis of their background, gender, race, sexuality and so on," she said.

About 40 per cent of tweets directed at candidates were uncivil, and 16 per cent of all tweets were abusive or potentially threatening.

Certain criteria made candidates more susceptible

There were certain criteria that made candidates more susceptible to online hatred, Tworek said.

The main one was prominence.

"The top 10 people who received tweets in our study received about 61 per cent of all of the negative abuse," she said.

Women and racialized candidates did not necessarily receive higher rates of incivility online, the report concluded, but the harassment was also accompanied by lived experiences of threat, harassment, or marginalization offline.

Ashley Burke/CBC
Ashley Burke/CBC

In 2019, Vancouver MP Jenny Kwan told CBC News that in addition to a torrent of online hate, her tires were slashed and her office window was shattered by unknown vandals when she was a provincial MLA in B.C.

A chilling effect on political participation

Tworek says this kind of online abuse can have a chilling effect on democracy.

Various groups of people may look at what is happening online and choose not to engage — especially people from underrepresented groups who see how certain people are targeted on Twitter when they are political candidates. These onlookers may then decide — based on what they're seeing on Twitter — that they don't want to enter the political arena.

Tworek has a number of suggestions to improve political discourse.

For one, political candidates can have a robust strategy on how to deal with online harassment, including posting rules of engagement and blocking and muting certain voices if necessary.

Political parties should provide more support, especially to candidates who have less experience and are more likely to be targeted.

Governments should clarify laws and detail what police action can be taken, especially when the harassment reaches threatening levels.

Finally, she says, there are glimmers of positivity. She notes that candidates themselves can stand in solidarity against bullying, such as when rival candidates came out in support of B.C. Green candidate Nicola Spurling, who had been targeted for her gender identity.

"We can see, I think, instances and glimmers of positivity already where candidates push back against this," Tworek said.

"That's important. It certainly can look different."