Digital consultants working with female candidates need a strategy to deal with the online abuse of female politicians.
That’s one takeaway from a report released Tuesday by Atalanta, a UK-based organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in government worldwide.
Reinforcing what many female practitioners and office holders know from experience, the study found that women in public office were more likely than their male counterparts to receive criticism based on their their “physical appearance and family life.”
“Comments about their appearance and relationship status are also considerably more negative,” according to the study.
When it comes to handling this abuse, according to Eva Barboni, Atalanta’s CEO who co-authored the report using data from BrandsEye, “many female politicians and their consultants follow a three-part strategy: ignore the everyday sexism, block or filter out the more aggressive abuse, and report anything that rises to the level of a violent threat.”
The study analyzed the online treatment of female politicians in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Chile.
Some of the politicians, said Barboni, are beginning to call out sexist comments more regularly.
But, she added, “this can be a double-edged sword. While it may rally supporters and draw attention to the problem, it can also lead to an escalation of the abuse and distract them from their core messaging on more substantive topics.”
The study focused on public tweets about three pairs of male and female politicians from the UK, South Africa, and Chile between Sept. 1, 2017 to Nov. 30 , 2017. The pairs included: UK Prime Minister Theresa May of the Conservative Party and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, who ran against each other to head the ruling African National Congress.
In Chile, they looked at President Michelle Bachelet and her successor, Sebastián Piñera, who took office Sunday. The pair have battled for the country’s top office for the past dozen years.
The findings included the conclusion that female politicians “received negative gender-related comments about their competence, whereas male politicians did not.”
Moreover, men were the ones more likely to be writing the tweets. Barboni said female candidates need to have staff who are sorting through their social media interactions and determining the best course of action.
“Some of these attacks can get really vicious - including rape and death threats - and it can be incredibly exhausting and frightening to have to sort through those comments on your own,” she told C&E. “Political parties and consultants should also be playing an active role in helping female politicians deal with this issue, so the burden doesn’t fall on them alone.”
She also urged practitioners to refer matters to the police, when necessary. “The police play a crucial role in helping politicians identify and address comments that rise to the level of a credible threat of violence.”
Beyond creating a level of concern for the candidate’s personal safety, these social media interactions can actually have an impact on voters’ perceptions, Barboni added.
She cited a recent experiment where researchers created two Facebook feeds about a hypothetical female candidate.
“In one feed, they only discussed the candidate’s policy positions and credentials. In the other, they discussed the same topics but also included commentary on the candidate’s body,” she said. “Voters who saw the feed with the objectifying content were more like to rate the candidate as less competent and less serious.”
Still, despite the torrent of abuse that social media opens female politicians to, the channels can still provide the best way for their campaigns to get their message out.
“Telling a story that connects directly with your supporters and is unfiltered by traditional media allows women to have more control over their own narrative,” the report states. “Social media – Twitter and Instagram in particular – also allows connection on a more human level than many people have typically had, letting voters see that politicians are not all that different to you and me.”