Female Sunderland councillors fear online abuse could trigger physical attacks

Female councillors fear the online abuse they receive is reaching epidemic levels and could eventually lead to physical attacks upon them.

Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 11:00 am
Sunderland councillors Rebecca Atkinson, left, and Melanie Thornton study some of the online abuse aimed at them.

Two Sunderland Labour councillors say they are becoming “easy targets” and have been subjected to thousands of derogatory and defamatory comments covering subjects such as their sex, weight, looks, social lives, family and reputation.

Coun Rebecca Atkinson, who represents the Barnes ward and is also portfolio holder for housing and regeneration, said anonymous trolls on political forums have falsely accused her of corruption by receiving “brown envelopes”.

Coun Melanie Thornton, who was only elected to serve the Copt Hill ward at May’s election, and her family have had to endure posts of images comparing her to a character from satirical television series Bo Selecta.

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Ukip councillor Pam Mann has found the online abuse aimed at her party since her election to Sunderland City Council in May as "disturbing".

Their ordeals have prompted city council leader and Labour group leader Graeme Miller to call for a less toxic atmosphere on social media channels and improved political debate.

He also believes that male councillors receive “nothing like the levels of trolling” encountered by female counterparts.

Coun Atkinson, a councillor more than seven years, believes problems have escalated since she was last elected in 2016.

She said she has been shouted at in the street and added: “If it ends in violence then it will not be a man who is targeted. It will be a woman because we are seen as an easy target.”

As to the online abuse, she said: “In many cases it appears to be men who could have daughters the same age as yourself. Would they like it if people were saying nasty things about their children?

“It is easy to say ignore it but you need to know who your enemy is.

“It also impacts on your family life because you get down and you are spending time looking at comments rather than with my son building Lego.”

While Coun Atkinson’s son is too young to read any comments, Coun Thornton’s teenage children have both read the abuse targeting their mother.

Coun Thornton, who has suffered panic attacks since the abuse started, said: “It has left them upset and angry. I do not think becoming a councillor has worked out the way I wanted it to.

“I am just a hard-working woman and want to do my best for Hetton.

“But because it is dogged and daily you don’t know what is happening next or if they are going to target your children. It is just consuming and leaves you on edge.”

Both councillors have vowed to continue in their roles and accept that the comments are made by a minority of “keyboard warriors”.

Coun Atkinson added: “My message to them would be come into the civic centre and speak to us if you have an issue of concern.”

Council leader Coun Miller wants people of all political persuasions and online critics to tone down the language used and called for “everyone to be respectful of other people’s points of view.”

What the opposition parties in Sunderland say about online abuse?

Opposition councillors in Sunderland have agreed with members of the ruling Labour group that online threats should not be tolerated.

But they largely stress that they have not received the same amount of abuse as that reported by Labour councillors Rebecca Atkinson and Melanie Thornton.

Coun Antony Mullen, the deputy leader of the Conservative group on the council, who represents Barnes, said: "As Conservatives, we defend people's freedom of speech and their right to express their view, even if others find such views offensive, disagreeable or distasteful.

“However, nobody should feel threatened or intimidated, particularly if they have genuine concerns that they are at risk of violence.

“No member of the Sunderland Conservative Association has been responsible for such intimidating or threatening behaviour and we intend to keep it that way."

Coun Julia Potts, one of three female Liberal Democrat councillors serving the city, said she had not been targeted by trolls since her election to the council in May.

While agreeing that abusive comments are unacceptable, she added: “People could be more critical of Labour because they are the party in power and people on the streets are unhappy with the way it is being run.”

Coun Potts, who represents Millfield, said that she offers advice to people about trolling in her professional capacity as a HR manager, continuing: “I tell people to delete the comments and block the senders. Do not let it affect your mental health.”

She also runs diversity and inclusion workshops for her party’s councillors to help them understand and respect differences.

The Green Party’s sole councillor, Coun Dom Armstrong, who was elected in May to represent Washington South, said he had still to encounter any online criticism.

But he added: “The online abuse encountered by councillors is quite sickening to be honest,

“If it's not something we can get rid of altogether it would be good to have some sort of cross party agreement not to encourage or facilitate it on our own pages. That said I think that people should maintain the right to disagree, online or anywhere else, as long as there's a baseline of respect.”

Coun Pam Mann, who was elected for Ukip to serve the St Anne’s ward in May, said online abuse on political forums had been directed at her party rather than towards her as a woman.

She said accusations made about Ukip include the terms “racist”, “facist”, “Nazis” and “xenophobes”.

Coun Mann added: “It is very disturbing and upsetting when you have stood up to represent your community and you get nasty comments from people who do not know you and have never met you.

“It is also insulting to the voters because it is the voters who you placed you here in the first place.”

She agreed with Coun Miller’s call for parties to set an example through improved political debate and added: “We should all be working together for the community.”