- Exclusive research commissioned by Business Insider has found that ethnic minority politicians receive disproportionate amounts of abuse on Twitter compared to their white colleagues.
- Data scientists at Evolution AI studied more than 3 million tweets sent to British members of parliament from the beginning of 2017 to March 2018 and flagged tweets containing obscenities, aggression, and rude language.
- All politicians receive abuse but the data showed ethnic minority MPs receive 15% more than their white counterparts.
- Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, one of the most-abused MPs on Twitter, said online toxicity was fuelled by anti-immigrant feeling.
- Twitter said it works with the government and political parties to provide support for anyone receiving abuse.
LONDON – On April 7, British shadow home secretary Diane Abbott posted a link to a newspaper story on Twitter about increased police stop-and-search activity in the UK.
“There’ll be 300 extra police officers and more searches in London this weekend,” she wrote. “Trouble is Tories cut nearly 2,500 police in London. 21,000 nationally. Not just for a weekend but permanently.”
There'll be 300 extra police officers and more searches in London this weekend https://t.co/Cqe0hZkc9N via @MetroUK Trouble is Tories cut nearly 2,500 police in London. 21,000 nationally. Not just for a weekend but permanently.
— Diane Abbott MP (@HackneyAbbott) April 7, 2018
This is pretty run-of-the-mill politicking, taking aim at police spending cuts made while Prime Minister Theresa May was in charge of law enforcement as home secretary. And it has nothing to do with race.
But one Twitter user responded by advocating ethnic cleansing: “Great work Diane for creating a no go zone under your watch and your black community. Between black gangs and Muslims screwing up our island something needs to be done fast! This news is a great advert for whites to pull together and get rid!!!”
Another response to Abbott’s tweet reads: “What are you gonna do when these fantastic ‘West Indian mums’ start getting the hump that their precious angelic teenage sons got searched ‘for no reason’ by ‘racist police’? People like you have caused this anti police culture in London!”
Abbott has been putting up with overt and covert racism on Twitter for years. In 2012, Twitter user Kenny Bee wrote a tweet directed at Abbott: “Typical Black person … 100% grab.”
All the abusive tweets remain visible on Twitter at the time of writing.
It’s true that politicians of all stripes receive insults on Twitter, and that’s par for the course when you’re a public figure.
But exclusive research published for the first time by Business Insider shows how ethnic minority politicians such as Abbott receive disproportionate amounts of that abuse.
The research, conducted by data scientists at natural language processing startup Evolution AI, categorised 3.16 million tweets directed at 523 MPs on Twitter between January 2017 and March 2018. MPs with zero or small Twitter presence were excluded from the study.
Of the 3.16 million tweets, Evolution AI found around 5% were “toxic,” containing obscenities, aggression, or rude language. Mildly offensive insults such as “idiot” were not counted. Neither were insults that didn’t explicitly tag MPs on Twitter. Evolution AI used a model based on artificial intelligence to determine whether tweets were toxic or not.
Of those toxic tweets, 25% were directed at ethnic minority MPs. The rest were targeted at white MPs.
At first glance, this looks like ethnic minority politicians get off lightly when it comes to abuse. But just 7% of the 523 MPs on Twitter are from an ethnic minority, meaning they receive disproportionate amounts of abuse.
Evolution AI found that ethnic minority politicians received, on average, 15% more toxic tweets than their counterparts.
The researchers didn’t distinguish between racist tweets and general abuse, partly because it’s difficult for a computer to decide what is racist and what isn’t. But the fact that non-white politicians receive significantly more abuse than white ones clearly shows a racist undercurrent in political life on Twitter.
Labour MPs Naz Shah, David Lammy, Chuka Umunna, and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott were among the party’s most-abused politicians on Twitter. On the Conservative side, Nuz Ghani and James Cleverly received considerable amounts of toxic tweets.
According to Evolution AI, a high proportion of Naz Shah’s mentions comprise toxic tweets, at 15.5%. Shah has been criticised recently over several controversies, such as making anti-Semitic comments and apparently endorsing the brutal Apartheid practice of “necklacing.” But her critics sometimes cross the line into racism.
One user, responding to Shah’s controversial tweet paying tribute to Winnie Mandela, wrote: “@NazShahBfd So you support neclacing? Another corrupt muslim MP I suppose. Does the mosque tell you what you can and can’t do to? Of course it does. I think you should resign!”
Evolution AI also said James Cleverly and Diane Abbott receive a high percentage of toxic tweets, at 7% of their mentions.
Abbott said in a statement to Business Insider:
“It is no surprise that MPs from ethnic minorities receive a disproportionately high level of abuse on Twitter. This abuse reflects the trend in society which has seen an increase in hate speech and hate-crime. Politicians have a role to play, and it is irresponsible to send around ‘go home’ immigration billboard vans and to create what the Government calls its hostile environment against migrants. The big social media companies also have a role to play in curbing hate speech, and not just against MPs. Everyone deserves the protection of the law, and police need the resources from Government to tackle this problem.”
The research did not include Sadiq Khan who is London mayor, but not an MP. The researchers did note that Khan faces considerable amounts of online abuse, often referencing the fact he’s Muslim.
In one example, still visible on Twitter, a user wrote: “The Terrorists are 99.9% Muslim. They’re Heathens. Why in the Hell did the People of London elect you as Mayor. I bet they regret the Shit out of that.”
During the SXSW tech conference in March, Khan read out racist tweets about himself in a plea for social media firms to crack down on hate speech.
This isn’t to say white MPs don’t also get considerable amounts of toxic abuse. Evolution AI ranked some of the most abused politicians on Twitter and found that energy minister Claire Perry, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn all ranked highly – though none received as much abuse as Naz Shah.
The government is considering criminalising abuse of Parliamentary candidates during campaigning and elections, after Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in the days leading up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. Free-speech activists and police have criticised the proposals, arguing there are robust laws already in place.
A government spokeswoman said: “We have been clear that abuse of public figures in any form is completely unacceptable. There is a clear difference between legitimate scrutiny of MPs, and conduct which is fuelled by hate and personal abuse. No one should have to endure abuse or intimidation as part of any job, including parliamentarians.”
“Later this year, the Government will consult on a new offence of intimidation in public life.”
Social media sites like Twitter have historically favoured free speech over protecting people from abuse
Politicians grilled Twitter back in December about why it was so easy to find racist abuse and hate speech on its platform.
Policy executive Sinead McSweeney explained at the time this was partly down to the firm’s historical attitude to free speech. The firm once described itself as “the free-speech wing of the free speech party.”
She told MPs: “Twitter was in a place where it believed the most effective antidote to bad speech was good speech. It was very much a John Stuart Mill-style philosophy. We’ve realised the world we live in has changed. We’ve had to go on a journey with it, and we’ve realised it’s no longer possible to stand up for all speech in the hopes society will become a better place because racism will be challenged, or homophobia challenged, or extremism will be challenged.”
After a tacitly permissive attitude to abuse, the firm is finally clamping down, but those efforts are still nascent. It has just started booting far-right extremists such as Britain First and Tommy Robinson from its platform, but many – such as neo-Nazi Richard Spencer – are still pushing out covertly racist messaging.
In its defence, the issue of online abuse isn’t just limited to Twitter – it’s just easier to study. The platform makes it much easier for researchers to access and categorise its “firehose” of tweets, and also happens to be the platform of choice for MPs trying to talk directly to voters.
The company didn’t say how many users it had banned for abusing UK politicians online.
A spokesman said in a statement: “At Twitter we’ve launched more than 30 policy and product changes over the past 18 months, all with the aim of making our platform safer. Our challenge is a difficult one. The content on Twitter often reflects the views that exist within society – both the good and the bad.
“However, we do not allow it to move into targeted abuse and harassment, or to reach a place where voices are stifled through fear and intimidation. We work with political parties and the Parliamentary authorities to ensure that those affected receive the support they need, and we are committed to ensuring that those standing for office are able to do so without fear from intimidation and abuse on our platform.”
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