Threats of violence. Name calling. Bullying. Women in politics have seen it all.
But at a panel discussion this past February at Mount Royal University, female politicians from across the political spectrum came together to discuss their experiences and look for solutions to what they all agree is a serious problem that’s getting worse.
The panel included Service Alberta Minister Stephanie McLean, Minister of Justice Kathleen Ganley, Wildrose MLA Leela Aheer, NDP MLAs Sandra Jansen and Estanfania Vargas Cortes, and Michelle Robinson, a municipal candidate in the upcoming election.
“My initial reaction is, ‘Should I change something about myself?’” —Sandra Jansen
Collectively, the participants agreed there is a lot of negativity about women on social media. Men get it too, but when directed at women, it’s often worse, with offensive language and threats of sexual violence. When women and other minorities respond to attacks on social media, their requests for respect are usually ignored and they are instead given demeaning labels such as “special snowflakes.”
Jansen said her strength in dealing with the online hostility comes from the support of her team, who are reassuring when the attacks get to her.
“My initial reaction is, ‘should I change something about myself?’” But Jansen has learned that the hateful things that people say speaks more to their character than about the person they are harassing.
The panelists agreed online harassment is an issue that often hinders women from entering the political realm. But at least one participant said that female leaders can bring different skills to the table like collaboration and listening to different perspectives.
“Everyone deserves to have a voice. Diversity and equal representation are critical, [in a democracy]” says Ganley.
The solution to these issues is not simple, but requires strength and political leadership at all levels, says Mount Royal University professor Lori Williams. Williams has been studying women in power leading up to the 2015 Alberta election.
She’s found that online, the combination of anonymity and immediate response can make for a toxic brew. The result is a tone that is often “so negative, so destructive, so divisive and combative,” Williams says.
Furthermore, social media is now being used as a tool for leaders to sidestep accountability. Politicians, who are very skilled at using social media, are able to take their message directly to people and avoid direct questions from journalists.
Fake news is also permeating through social media networks, diminishing the capacity for fact-checking and complete explanations of policies and proposals, says Williams. The creation of misinformation, or so-called alternative facts, and the undercutting of anyone who challenges politicians who misuse social media diminish the credibility of our political system.
Williams suggests parties and leaders make all the difference. Politicians, especially female politicians, can influence the online environment by emphasizing a more positive tone, condemning bullying and criticizing trolls, because that type of malicious negativity is not helpful in a democracy.
Politicians could learn a thing or two from Premier Rachel Notley and “lead by example, calling for a better use of social media, a higher standard, more respectful, collaborative tone in both [our] everyday activity and in [our] responses to the worst on social media.”
- By Brittany Sackschewsky