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Online abuse: ‘I was waking up every day to malicious messages from men’

Talented women didn’t run as election candidates for fear of being subjected to ‘toxic’ abuse

Googling herself for the first time since being targeted with fake online porn, Cara Hunter found a forum last week asking if it was real.

It’s two months since the East Derry MLA was pinged by a stranger warning a video was “doing the rounds”.

The 44-second clip was cut from a film on an American porn website and featured a woman doing a handstand while engaging in a sex act.

The woman’s face is obscured but the message features images of Hunter putting up election posters — she ran as an SDLP candidate in May’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections — alongside a photograph of her wearing a bikini (taken by her mother) from her private social media account.

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“I think the worst part for me psychologically is that to this day, I don’t know how many people have seen it — and how many people believe it,” she tells The Irish Times.

“What’s so scary is the perpetrator could be anybody; you could meet them at the corner shop. You just don’t know. You have this malicious, sinister energy out there and you can’t track them down.

“I was away for a few days recently and googled it out of curiosity. There’s a Reddit Forum saying: ‘The Cara Hunter Video — is it real?’ I just thought, I’m glad I didn’t google myself at the time. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Taken from her website

“If you put my name into Twitter or Facebook when all this was happening, it would automatically come up ‘Cara Hunter handstand video’ on both platforms. It was a purposeful attempt to dehumanise me,” she adds.

Trolling of female politicians in the North had become depressingly routine by the time the Assembly elections were called; but what happened to Hunter and a second female candidate, the DUP’s Diane Forsythe, in the run-up to polling day marked a new and more sinister escalation in targeted online abuse.

Such is the level of concern that Justice Minister Naomi Long wrote privately to politicians a fortnight ago about the creation of a cross-party Assembly forum to tackle online harassment.

Intimidation of women candidates during the 2022 election campaign will be scrutinised, with each party asked to nominate either two members affected by “such aggressive behaviour” — or someone to speak on their behalf.

The correspondence emerged just days after an interview with the The Irish Times in which Long revealed “really talented women” didn’t run as election candidates for fear of being subjected to “toxic” abuse.

“They said, ‘I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t put myself out there and read that kind of abuse and read that kind of nastiness’,” according to the Alliance party leader, who has received sustained online harassment.

For Hunter, who waited until after the election to go public about the intimidation — she consulted with senior party members on the issue — the period between receiving the alert on Good Friday and May 5th polling day “nearly destroyed her”.

The video was shared thousands of times via WhatsApp and she was bombarded with messages from as far as Manhattan. On Easter Sunday, the 26-year-old was approached by a man in a street who asked her to perform oral sex.

“One of my staff had a birthday party down at the Harbour Bar in Portrush. I decided to go, thinking I am not going to let this define me; I’ve done nothing wrong. A man stopped me in the street and starting goading me saying: ‘you absolutely love it, come over here’. I just wanted to cry,” she recalls.

“It was horrifying. I was waking up every day to really malicious messages from men I’ve never met; They were saying ‘now people will see what you’re really like’, ‘they’ll see how you really got the job’. They were taking real enjoyment out of thinking that they’d ‘caught me out’. The messages weren’t anonymous and 99 per cent were from men,” Hunter says.

“The abuse was female-focused to undermine me politically; no one cares about your policies or your capabilities or what you’re trying to deliver to your community. It’s designed to strip you down and sexualise and objectify you. That’s what really hurt. Because I’m in my twenties there is the age element as well. It’s really quite cruel. And then when you do speak up about these things, there’s a backlash for doing that too.”

Supported by her partner of three years, Peter (the couple have just got engaged), a low point for Hunter was telling her family.

“I had an aunt and uncle who on two separate occasions came to my door and asked to speak to me privately about it. I had to sit my daddy down and tell him; that broke my heart, to be honest. I had to explain to him that it wasn’t me but people were trying to say that it’s me,” she says.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is investigating more than 100 incidents linked to this year’s election, including online misogyny. Physical violence and sectarian intimidation were also meted out to female candidates.

People Before Profit’s Hannah Kenny was surrounded by three men and gripped by the throat in an east Belfast housing estate for “simply delivering election material”. Her attackers threatened her with violence if she returned to the area.

Yet it is the online abuse that has become so pervasive at a time when there is limited legislation to deal with it in the North, as it is not a devolved matter for Stormont.

An Online Safety Bill is making its way through Westminster; Ms Long wants the forum’s collated experiences to feed into that.

Meanwhile, there have been repeated calls by senior figures across the political spectrum to make social media companies more accountable — but progress remains slow.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill used a joint platform on International Women’s Day last year to urge social media giants to take “more responsibility” in dealing with anonymised posts. There is “literally hourly trolling” about appearance, clothes and haircuts, said Foster, as O’Neill quipped: “Who knew that men would be so interested in my eyebrows?”

Misogynistic abuse

Both women reflected on the “really painful” impact of the harassment, particularly on their families.

So why has targeted misogynistic abuse become so endemic to Northern Ireland politics?

“This doesn’t happen to men; it is the sense of society believing that they’re entitled to treat women a different way to men,” says DUP MLA Diane Forsythe. “If women are running in politics, the first thought for some is: ‘can I abuse them online, tear them down or go after them in a misogynistic way?’ This election campaign has really exposed that.”

“It is disturbing but part of it is they have nothing validly bad they can say about you so they just try to destroy whatever they think they can.”

An accountant by profession, the 38-year-old South Down DUP MLA has worked with Women’s Aid for the past two years as its finance manager. “I’m very well informed about the issue of violence against women and girls — and targeted attacks,” she underlines.

However, a phone call from a Sunday newspaper to the DUP press office about her being falsely linked to an online porn video left her reeling. When the newspaper didn’t publish the story, the video went into mass circulation less than a week before polling day.

Explicit screenshots were placed beside Forsythe’s election posters as part of a smear campaign. The first-time Assembly candidate — she replaced the ultra-conservative MLA Jim Wells following his deselection by the party — was inundated with “sordid” messages. One man contacted her from Canada.

“I was told the video was out but no one wanted to send it to me. I asked to see it. I was horrified that someone would do that.”

Once alerted the DUP issued a statement condemning the material and warning whoever shared it would face prosecution — a move Forsythe hoped would “shut it down”. Six weeks on, she is still getting messages.

“I was dealing with it in the face of an election, so I was angry; I really wanted these people to be punished but there was the concern as to whether this was going to affect my vote,” she tells The Irish Times.

“On a personal level, I was concerned about people believing it. I shielded it from my three kids who were all at primary school. But I was pretty clear in my head; this is wrong, people need to be held to account,” she says.

Police began an investigation and during the two days Forsythe was interviewed she says it became apparent there is “no way to control this”.

Malicious communication

In Northern Ireland, the offence of “malicious communication” is the only way an online abuser can be prosecuted. Inherent difficulties in tracking down the source of the message were also relayed to her by an investigating officer.

“I thought ‘malicious communication. Is that really good enough?’ It’s not the police’s fault. The law isn’t good enough to keep up with modern day communication,” she says.

“If this was pre-social media and stuff was going out in the post, you could close down a post box. There’s no way to control this; nobody has the power to do anything about it.

“Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. You can’t take away the impact of it. There’s not an offence of online harassment. You don’t really have grounds to do anything about this.”

Forsythe made history on May 5th by becoming South Down’s first female unionist MLA.

Politicians have a better platform “in a way” to defend themselves against online intimidation, she believes. “When this happened to me, I had the DUP press officer and director of elections putting out a statement, saying it was vile.

“But what about the teacher down the road who has this stuff put out in their community? Their reputation is tarnished. They could lose their job and their mental health could really suffer. They don’t have a voice and they need the law more to protect them. I had the means to give me a voice and shut it down. The law needs to be improved to offer better protections.”

Despite the surge in attacks, a record number of women ran for election.

For the first time, more than a third of Stormont’s newly elected MLAs are female. Hunter and Forsythe have been nominated by their parties to sit on the cross-party forum and are optimistic about its work. The pair contacted each other about their shared experience.

Forsythe adds: “It’s terrible it’s had to be this way but at the same time whenever you come through it and out the other side it shows that it isn’t going to break you — and we can come out stronger”.

Hunter admits to fears about being targeted again: “When it all came out, my parents said to me that I could at last breathe now and people will know it’s not me. But I thought: ‘is it the end, or is this the beginning?’ Women are getting into politics to do something positive; it’s not fair when someone is setting out to destroy you when you’re just trying to do your job. You can’t let them win.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times