Many politicians remaining silent over online personal abuse
Over half of TDs and Senators say they have received threats of physical violence
Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration Roderic O’Gorman. The Green Party TD found himself a prominent target for online abuse this week. Photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Online attacks on politicians are nothing new. But while newly appointed Green Party Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman – who was this week’s target – chose to speak out, many politicians prefer to stay silent.
Before the attacks on O’Gorman, The Irish Times had asked each of the State’s 160 TDs and 60 Senators about their online experiences. Sixty responded. More than half (31) said they had received online threats of physical violence.
Seven said family members had faced online physical threats. Slightly more than a quarter of the respondents (17) said they had reported threats of violence to An Garda Síochána.
Twelve – four men and eight women – have received harassing or intimidatory sexual material online. Five, including four of the women, made reports to gardaí. No female politician would speak on the record about this.
O’Gorman came under sustained attack for being pictured alongside British LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell at Dublin’s Pride march two years ago.
In a 1997 letter to the Guardian, Mr Tatchell wrote that some of his friends had made a “conscious choice” to have sex with an adult when they were under the age of 13.
“While it may be impossible to condone paedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful,” wrote the British campaigner.
Since then, Tatchell has claimed that the letter was edited and said sex with children was “impossible to condone”.
“This means I condemn it,” he tweeted last week. “I oppose adults having sex with children.”
O’Gorman moved quickly to speak out, saying he had only met Tatchell once – at the march. He blamed “anonymous, far-right Twitter accounts” for playing on genuine concerns.
This did not stop the attacks against him, however, where he was accused of endangering the rights of children and supporting paedophilia, and called upon to resign.
While the scale of the attack that O’Gorman was subjected to this week was particularly strong, every member of the Oireachtas has their story to tell.
Former Fine Gael Roscommon-Galway TD Eugene Murphy was at the receiving end last year of posts on a Facebook community page, where supporters of an elderly farmer campaigned against what they believed was his unfair treatment regarding a relative’s estate.
Murphy was attacked, even though he knew next to nothing about the matter.
“Boycott Eugene Murphy, turn ur back on him in public, roar at his wife, blackball his children, all of which are LEGAL. I think it’s amazing too how the likes of Murphy’s cars are damaged,” a post on the page said.
It then went on to outline how Murphy’s car might be damaged. “I’m not suggesting U put on disposable rubber gloves, or that u fill a balloon full of brake fluid, Or that U tie it off at the top or that U put little pin pricks into the top of the filled balloon,” it said.
The politician, who lost his Dáil seat but has since won a place in the Seanad, reported the matter to gardaí, but did not press the complaint after learning that the person behind the Facebook post was a man with young children. The page has been taken down by Facebook.
“It had a very worrying toll on my family. I would never be worried about the individuals like that. I call them cowards. But I would be worried about the knock-on effects on your family who are put into sleepless nights worrying about you until you are home safe,” he said.
For Wexford politician Malcolm Byrne, online abuse is commonplace. “Because I am a gay man, I am now used to homophobic abuse,” Byrne told The Irish Times. “The abuse directed at Roderic O’Gorman, it’s sad, but it doesn’t surprise me.”
Earlier this year Byrne, who ran unsuccessfully for the Dáil in February’s general election, was attacked on Facebook by a man who, according to his page, is in his 70s, lives in Dublin, and has connections with Wexford.
“This gay boy ignored my correspondence about the trouble he would be in if he supported Fianna Fáil going into coalition with the enemy of the Irish people, Fine Gael,” the individual wrote on Facebook.
After Byrne appeared on local radio in Wexford to discuss government formation the man commented: “Of course we all know what Malcolm Byrne wants, he wants to be as close as possible to Cleo Varadkar. Ooops.”
Campaigns such as the one launched against O’Gorman this week may be initiated by people with extremist or obnoxious views, Byrne says, but, the problem is that other people read what was is alleged online and some believe it.
Because of his experiences, Byrne argues that Irish politicians should stop making “sneering”references to the “mainstream media. Using the phrase is part of “a very dangerous political playbook”.
“It’s used by Trump, It’s used by [Hungarian prime minister Viktor] Orban. It’s used by [Filipino president Rodrigo] Duterte. It is being used by people who essentially want to undermine democracy, and it’s about questioning trusted news sources.”
Byrne believes social media companies should do more to clamp down on abuse. In particular, he has a problem with the way Twitter allows people set up anonymous accounts.
The politicians who responded to The Irish Times survey were invited to make confidential comments if they wished. A number raised the scale of the aggressive online activity that comes from supporters of Sinn Féin (the so-called Shinnerbots).
“All political leaders have a responsibility to tell their supporters that it is not okay to direct personal abuse at political opponents,” Byrne said when interviewed by The Irish Times.
But he believes there is a particular problem with supporters of Sinn Féin.
“I would love to hear Mary Lou McDonald say to the Shinnerbots, folks, engage in the issues, stop attacking the individuals.
“Every political leader needs to do it, but Sinn Féin supporters tend to be a lot more targeted with their abuse against individuals. Not all of them – and there are Sinn Féin representatives who will take on some of their supporters – but it is a problem that is out there.”
Newly elected Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond is a frequent recipient of attention: “Hopefully it’ll be your funeral in a few weeks,” said one Tweet directed at him two weeks ago, after Richmond had criticised the arrangements for the funeral of IRA member Bobby Storey in Belfast.
Richmond, and others on Twitter, quickly took exception to the comment, and the account was soon closed. A new account with a similar name has since been opened, and an apology to Richmond posted on it.
“Hi Neale. Apologies for my earlier comment. It was not thought through. I didn’t mean any malice in it and I assure you nothing like this will ever happen again.”
It appears the account belongs to a male from Dundalk in his late teens.
Richmond is a TD for the Rathdown constituency in Dublin, and a member of the Church of Ireland. He is quite critical, he said, of Sinn Féin and of dissident republicans, and gets a lot of personalised abuse in response.
“Shinnerbots are alive and well and some of them cross the line and can make really, really obscene comments,” he said.
However the abuse he receives comes from across the political spectrum. It includes the “Brexiteer fringe, and they sort of morph into the alt-right”.
He gets sectarian abuse, much of it from Northern Ireland and Scotland, and gets called a “West Brit”, a term he “loathes”.
He said he is not surprised that the abuse comes from both the left and the right.
“For me politics is a circle, not a line, and the further right and further left you go, they start to meet.”
He blocks or mutes abusive posters. So far, he has muted 5,700 Twitter accounts, and blocked 141. Muting stops a person’s posts appearing in your timeline. Blocking a person prevents them communicating with you.
While he cannot see such posts, others, however, can: “I have often gotten a phone call from my sister to ask if I am alright, because somebody has said nasty things about me, and I haven’t seen it.”
Politicians should be more careful with their own language, he said. Donald Trump, former deputy prime minister of Italy Matteo Salvini and French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, “fuel the Twitter abuse of their followers with their use of language”.
“It is when politicians feed into that, or try to tap into that atmosphere, that it is quite worrying. And we can’t forget what happened four years ago to poor [murdered English politician] Jo Cox. That is always at the back of a lot of people’s minds.”
However, the experience of Roderic O’Gorman this week had one good outcome, since politicians from all parties rallied round against “what was clearly an orchestrated and nasty campaign, and said ‘this isn’t on’”.
Asked to comment on the views of politicians from other parties that there was a problem with the level of online aggression that came from supporters of Sinn Féin, a spokesman for the party said personal attacks directed at politicians, or anyone else, on social media, are not acceptable.
“Indeed on Thursday, former Fianna Fáil TD Declan Breathnach apologised unreservedly and retracted what he admitted were ‘unfounded and damaging accusations’ made on Twitter against Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald that were, in his own words, an ‘unjustified attack on her reputation’.
“That should serve as a reminder to everyone that it is incumbent on all who engage on social media to conduct themselves in a manner that is respectful.”
A number of Sinn Féin politicians were among the confidential respondents who told The Irish Times that they had received online threats of physical violence, as well as unwanted sexual material.
A spokeswoman for Facebook said it acknowledges that its platform “can be misused” and that it has a responsibility to tackle that abuse.
“We don’t allow hate speech, bullying, direct threats, nudity or content involving sexual activity and we remove this type of content when we are made aware of it.”
Unlike other platforms, she said, Facebook does not allow for anonymous accounts and is based on a “real name culture”.
“Every day, we prevent millions of attempts to create fake accounts and we remove fake profiles that are reported to us. We’re continuing to develop technology such as the comment filter and invest in expertise to better prevent the intimidation of public figures on our platform.”
A spokeswoman for Twitter said it had “zero-tolerance” policies on threats of violence, abuse and harassment, and hateful conduct. When accounts that violate these rules are identified, it takes “enforcement action”.
“The ability to speak anonymously or using a pseudonym has been a core tenet of our service since its inception,” she said.
“In some parts of the world, people’s lives would be at risk if they were not able to post anonymously.”
The company is in regular communication with Irish political parties on a range of issues, including safety, she said.
“More than one in two of the tweets we take action on for abuse are now proactively surfaced using technology, rather than relying on reports to Twitter.”