Is online hate just part of the job for female MLAs?

Telegraph Journal | December 10, 2019

In the wake of the National Day of Action on Violence Against Women, Liberal women’s equality critic Monique LeBlanc is calling attention to online hate — which she told the Telegraph-Journal is “another outlet” for misogyny that we need to talk about. 

LeBlanc said in her role as critic she’s found research on women’s experience with online harassment varies between 50 and 70 per cent depending on the study.

A January 2019 study examining gender differences on harassment in politics, Politicians in the line of fire, found that women with more visibility are more likely to be subject to incivility online.

“It’s a reflection of society if you look at violence against women, on the streets, behind closed doors, and on social media. I kind of make a link between the three of them,” LeBlanc said.

“As long as we accept as a society that we accept that men can threaten, harass, sexually harass, be misogynist with no consequences, social media is just another outlet.” 

Sexism: from the legislature to social media

Green Party health critic Megan Mitton told the Telegraph-Journal that she’s received a lot of online hate recently over the mandatory vaccination bill, which she said may not be the best policy decision although she strongly believes in high vaccination rates. 

“I do think I’m treated differently online sometimes, but I’m treated differently in person as well,” Mitton said, noting that this can range from small behaviours like interruption to more overt sexism.  

“I’ve had people write to me and say, you weren’t elected to talk about women’s issues. Or, when I was campaigning, being told ‘go home, go home and take care of your child, don’t run.’,” she said. 

“It’s a very different level where when someone says something that isn’t nice and isn’t true about you, your phone can ding and tell you right away, whereas it used to be people would just say it around the kitchen table.” 

Liberal MLA Lisa Harris said harassment takes its toll on someone’s wellbeing, even if it appears to be the norm for modern-day politicians.

“I’m an adult, I’m a leader, I’m educated, I’m quite capable, and what it does to me, it can absolutely crush you,” she said of the “brutal” messages she sometimes receives. 

“I can rise above it and work through it and have a good system … but for people that don’t have that, it’s very hurtful. I just wish that people realized how hurtful their negative words can be and what a negative impact it can have on people.” 

Is it all part of the job?

Mitton said there is a line between engaging with constituents online and being harassed. But she believes harassment and misinformation go hand in hand, citing her experience with critiquing the vaccination bill. 

“I do think we need high vaccination rates. But I’ve looked at the research from chief medical officers across the country who have said this policy that’s been proposed might not be the best way to do that … And because of that I’ve been accused of being anti-science.” she said.

“I have a lot of examples around me of male MLAs and how they’re treated, so I can see a difference,” Mitton added. “That’s just something that is the reality of being a woman in politics.” 

Harris said that although this is the reality of the day, it doesn’t have to continue.

“It only becomes the new norm if we allow it to be,” she said.

LeBlanc hopes that as women gain ground in the political sphere these issues will be brought to the table more often.

“If you’re at one point where you have 50 per cent women, so they’re 50 per cent of the voice, these are things that will be brought forth,” she said. 

But all three women agreed that online harassment can be a deterrent for young political hopefuls — Mitton added this is especially true for women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ people. 

“It’s a limitation in participation in democracy,” LeBlanc said. “[If] as soon as you walk in, you’re told you’re going to get harassed on social media, we’re going to have more trouble recruiting candidates.” 

For those would-be candidates, Mitton said a mentor once suggested keeping your motivation for being a politician top of mind when dealing with hate online and elsewhere. 

“I’m in politics because I want to help make the world better,” she said. “I’m not in politics because of myself, it’s not about me, so that’s what I try to think about.”

Savannah Awde | Legislature Bureau