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'I got an Instagram message saying 'your days are numbered' - but the thing is, this person was easily traceable'

Online abuse is now widely seen as part of the job of an elected official.

Hazel Chu and Neale Richmond (file photos)
Hazel Chu and Neale Richmond (file photos)
Image: RollingNews.ie

ONLINE ABUSE HAS become part and parcel of working in politics but it should not put people off from running for public office, a number of politicians have said.

The issue made headlines again over the weekend when three politicians spoke out about abuse they had received. 

On Saturday, independent Limerick councillor Elisa O’Donovan was sent an unsolicited photograph of an erect penis, which she reported to gardaí under Section 45 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 for offensive conduct of a sexual nature.

Like many politicians, her mobile phone number is online and people can also send her messages on social media platforms.

O’Donovan, a councillor for Limerick City West, tweeted on Saturday: “My day started with a WhatsApp message sent to my phone of a picture of an erect penis. This is incredibly intrusive.s

“The law and policing just has completely failed to keep up with sexual harassment and abuse online. Cyber flashing is a serious form of sexual intrusion imo but like a lot of the harassment women experience online we are told to “ignore it”. I can’t unsee that awful image.”

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On Sunday, Minister of State Anne Rabbitte wrote in The Journal about threats she has received while in office.

She described a late-night phone call she received in 2019, after speaking in support of farmers during the beef protests, when a caller told her to keep away from the issue or  “we’ll come for you”. 

Rabbitte reported the call to gardaí and to be safe, she and her three children moved out of their home for several days afterwards. 

Meanwhile, former Senator Lorraine Higgins spoke to RTÉ Radio One about the death threats that pushed her out of politics.

These incidents once again put the spotlight on the online abuse that politicians face – and how the level of abuse now has to be factored in to decisions about whether or not to run for office. 

Green Party councillor Claire Byrne, who is seeking the party’s nomination to run in the Dublin Bay South by-election, said she had to think long and hard about throwing her name in the ring.

The candidate will be decided by a vote of local Green Party members in the constituency.

Speaking to The Journal, Byrne said the abuse levelled at politicians, particularly online, seems to be a huge deterrent to people entering politics. “I don’t get that much abuse online but I’m about to, you know, as soon as I put my head over the parapet, [it's like] I’m inviting it,” she said.

‘Not the main part of the job’ 

Byrne, a councillor for Dublin South East Inner City, said there has been a real invasion of people’s privacy, in some cases, with some people turning up at politicians homes, highlighting a recent case involving party colleague Hazel Chu. 

“She gets it way worse than anybody else,” said Byrne. “I think it is a deterrent and it was definitely something that I had to give a lot of consideration to,” she added.

Byrne said she is not on social media as much as some, stating that she sometimes shies away from it. Putting her name forward for a potential election is a “real departure for me” she says.

“So yeah, I’m worried about going up as a candidate, I was speaking to my partner the other day, saying you know, I am really opening myself up,” she says. She stated that she thinks she will have to “dig deep” because the “need to be in this game” involves social media now.

Holly Cairns, a Social Democrats TD in Cork South-West, has also been on the receiving end of sexist commentary and says there needs to be better ways to deal with it so that it doesn’t deter women from running for office.

Fine Gael TD Joe Carey apologised in November to Cairns for liking a tweet in which a member of the Greyhound Racing Ireland board referred to her as an “ignorant little girl” and claimed her remarks were “waffle”.

Speaking to The Journal, Cairns said online misogynist abuse is common, but it’s “not the most prominent aspect of the job, that you’d be thinking about it all day, every day”.

“It’s a really tricky one, the more we talk about it I think it does deter people. I don’t mean to dismiss it or disregard it or mean to sound that it doesn’t really have to be addressed, it does,” she said.

Cairns added that one of the only ways to prevent online abuse is for proper resources to be put behind following up on the threats that are made against people online.

“Following them up so there is zero tolerance for it, that would perhaps help,” she said. Having supportive colleagues, family and friends is a must, she added.

“It’s not the biggest part of your day, it is bad and it is something that needs to be addressed, but it certainly isn’t the most consuming aspect of the job. We need more young people, more women, entering politics and we don’t want to deter people getting involved either,” she said.

‘Fat p***k and West Brit’

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond said female politicians receive a lot more abuse than their male counterparts, but he is also no stranger to harassment and insults.

The most common terms thrown in his direction include “fat p***k”, “West Brit” and “useless c**t”. He also once received an Instagram message which stated: “I hope your child gets autism.”

Richmond is Fine Gael’s spokesperson on European Affairs and has been a vocal critic of Brexit. He is a member of the Church of Ireland and, as such, his Irishness is often called into question.

They’d call you a fat p***k, they’d call you a useless c**t, you know, not exactly very thought through insults, a lot of it just washes off.

“Some of the anti-lockdown people, they’re the worst. They’re very sectarian, they call me a West Brit and say I’m not really Irish. Then you have some people who keep photoshopping my image on to like King Billy, or on to a British soldier, all that sort of stuff, putting an orange sash on me.”

Richmond said his profile increased as he moved from councillor to senator to TD, and so did the abuse.

“People see you on the telly and they call you smug, they call you arrogant, they call you ugly.”

The comments about his looks are hurtful but he said the remarks about his religion hit home even more.

“People assume that if you’re Protestant you’re somehow British or Unionist and think it’s acceptable to say that. Casual everyday sectarianism is seen as perfectly acceptable.

“There’s been the odd time it’s got on top of me, a couple of weeks ago I was on the wrong end of a really nasty pile-on and I found that very tough.”

Richmond has received a number of threats online, one of which he recently contacted gardaí about.

I got a message on Instagram, maybe a month or two ago, that said ‘Your days are numbered if I ever see you in the street’. The thing is, the person was easily traceable – I had nine LinkedIn contacts in common with this person.

“I contacted the social media company and the gardaí as well. They asked if I wanted to take action, but I said no. I weighed it up and thought it was an idle threat and that this is what they’d want me to do, to give them more attention.

“You can tell when people are up late at night and maybe they’ve taken alcohol and they’re sounding off on Twitter or whatever and they send a message, some of them are deleted the next day.

“You get loads of idle threats like, ‘Oh if I ever saw him, I’d love to punch him in the face’.”

Richmond is used to seeing these comments but certain remarks are hurtful to his wife and siblings.

“My wife isn’t on Twitter because of [the abuse]. I often don’t see a particularly vile message because I have blocked or muted the person, but one of my siblings might see it and they ring me up, worried about their little brother. People say the most horrible things and certainly that there’s a real sinister tone to the sectarian stuff.

“It has gotten on top of me the odd time and I have to delete the apps off my phone, do a little bit of mindfulness or whatever you want to call it, to switch off. Especially during the pandemic, it has been stressful.”

‘A pig in lipstick’ 

Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu regularly has to deal with abuse, much of it racist or sexist.

Chu has been called “slanty-eyed, “a yellow bitch”, “a pig in lipstick” and “a shape-shifting dragon” among other insults.

Her young daughter Alex has also been targeted online, with some people labelling her a “a mongrel” and one person recently making a sexual reference about her. She is three years old.  

Chu, who was born and raised in Dublin, is the first person of colour to be elected as Lord Mayor of Dublin. Her parents emigrated from Hong Kong to Dublin in the 1970s.

Chu has had to develop a thick skin over the years but the comments still get to her.

“I would love to say that I’m constantly going ‘Well feck you guys, I don’t give a shit’ but there are days when one of the members of the team in the Mansion House walks in and I’m on the floor crying with my head in my hands,” she told The Journal.

“That’s absolutely normal. At the beginning I thought ‘do not ever talk about those days’ because what will happen is that people who abuse you will think that they’re winning but they’re not.

“You have your cries, you dust it off and you get back up again. There’s this unfortunate – it’s not even an unfortunate fact – the reality is, they don’t like me because of my skin colour, I can’t change that for them. So, as much as they would like me to, I can’t change myself to better suit a narrative in their head.”

Chu regularly gets both racist and sexist comments, but the sexist ones are more common recently. She said it seems as though trolls are more aware that racism will be criticised online quicker than sexism.

I think the trolls have realised that the racist stuff might get called out. So now I get more of the sexist stuff or I’m fat or I’m ugly or I’m a pig in lipstick. I’ve noticed that a lot more recently.

Chu said the comments about her daughter are particularly difficult to see. She and her partner, Green Party TD Patrick Costello, try to protect Alex but some people still act as though the child is fair game when it comes to online commentary.

However, a few months ago, when Chu tweeted about the comment which made a sexual reference about Alex, even her most ardent critics acknowledged that a line was crossed.

“I got really pissed off when they made the comment about masturbation. When Patrick found me, I was in tears.

“Yes, I was upset, but they were also tears of anger and everything else combined because when someone says that to you about your child, you kind of wonder what the hell have you done wrong and then you realise you haven’t done anything wrong, it’s that person is a complete and utter asshole.”

She said going public about the incident led to an outpouring of support, including from people she didn’t expect.

“One of my very constant trolls actually emailed my office and said the comments about Alex were over the line. He wasn’t the man who made that particular comment, but he said he was very sorry for contributing to that kind of rhetoric. He said, ‘I’m very sorry that was over the line, I’m going to go off Twitter now, and I hope you take care’.

“So I guess the silver lining is that when it gets really shitty people, people will be there, but you don’t want it to get to that stage.”

More women and minorities needed 

Chu’s recent unsuccessful Seanad bid – which made headlines as she ran as an independent candidate while remaining in the Greens –  was never about winning. She said she knew she wouldn’t be elected but wanted to encourage more women and minorities to run for office.

Later today Chu is expected to launch her candidacy for the Green Party nomination in the upcoming Dublin Bay South by-election.

She is, of course, aware that the abuse would likely increase if she becomes a TD. She has discussed this with Costello and weighed up the pros and cons.

She has also discussed it with fellow politicians such as Senator Eileen Flynn who receives regular abuse because she is a Traveller.

“One thing that myself and Eileen and a few others have talked about is the fact that people don’t like us because we’re in office and we’re different. The more people you have in office who are different or diverse, the more people will start seeing that as normal. That has to happen at some stage, I just don’t know when.

Patrick and I have discussed what would happen if I was in the Dáil one day, if I was the only one there from a diverse background, and also because I’m also a woman, would it be the case that I get the brunt of the abuse? He was very blunt in saying, ‘Yes, yes you will’.

Chu’s fiance Costello, a member of the current government, also receives abuse online but the volume and type is notably different to what Chu herself gets.  

Costello, a TD for Dublin South Central, in March lodged a High Court challenge against his own government over the controversial Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement.

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“He hasn’t been quiet – let’s be honest, he’s suing the government over CETA, he’s seen as one of the troublemakers, but he probably gets about 10% of the crap that I do,” Chu said.

“We could tweet about the same thing and the replies I get are ten times worse. You might wonder why but, as he says himself, he’s a man and he’s white so that factors into it.”

‘Victim mentality’

Chu said she does feel pressure as one of the most high-profile people of colour in public office in Ireland. She is aware that some people disagree with her speaking out publicly about the abuse she experiences.

Whenever I start talking about it, everyone just goes, ‘oh there she goes again, she keeps playing the victim’. It’s not a victim mentality or ‘woe is me’. It’s very much the fact that if you are that person in politics who is the first person of colour, Traveller, you will be targeted, you will be called a token.

“And if you are very unapologetic about who you are, people will come at you. It’s one of those things that you put up with, but it is a lot of pressure.”

She is upfront about the challenges she faces but also does not want to put people – particularly women and minorities – off running for office.

“We need more women in politics. We need more women from diverse backgrounds in politics. I don’t think anyone should hide the stuff that happens when people get into politics. At the same time, I can see why someone would look at that and go, ‘Oh no I can’t run, I really don’t want that abuse’, but I hope it doesn’t put people off.

We need to get more people from diverse backgrounds in office and make that the norm. Until that happens, we won’t be able to change things.

Social media platforms 

Richmond said disagreement is par for the course in politics, but insults and threats are not acceptable.

“If someone insults me on social media, I block or mute them. If they just say something I disagree with or say they think I’m wrong about something, I don’t. Disagreement is the heart of politics, the more the merrier.”

Richmond said he regularly mutes and blocks people who insult him on social media, but that the platforms themselves need to do more.

“It’s getting to a really dangerous stage where [social media outlets] are platforming certain commentary that should not be allowed. Social media companies don’t want to do anything because they know controversy drives traffic which drives ad revenue.”

He believes social media giants should be classed as publishers and face legal action if they fail to remove content that is abusive. He said Europe-wide regulations need to tackle this.

Chu agrees that intervention is needed. In terms of racist content, she said the hate crime legislation published last month is a good starting point but more needs to be done.

“It’s a work in progress, I look forward to the discussions and the debates and amendments being added to it. The government has to legislate for it, but the providers also have to act on it.”

Chu added that social media is a community and, as such, the people in that community should be protected.

“Imagine if someone rocked up to a person’s house and erected signs saying ‘You’re a terrible c**t’ or ‘You’re a slanty-eyed so and so’, how long before that person would be told they had violated rules and the signs were taken down?

“You’ve got to ask, as a community, what are these social media platforms doing to protect their members? I don’t think they’re doing enough.”

With reporting by Christina Finn

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Órla Ryan

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