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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Britain’s May warns against online abuse on women’s suffrage centenary

The UK Prime Minister used a speech marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act to warn that such abuse is deterring many from entering public life

Slogans are projected onto the side of the Houses of Parliament by the Women's Equality Party to mark the centenary of the Representation of People Act at Houses of Parliament. Chris J Ratcliffe/ Getty Images
Slogans are projected onto the side of the Houses of Parliament by the Women's Equality Party to mark the centenary of the Representation of People Act at Houses of Parliament. Chris J Ratcliffe/ Getty Images

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has warned that social media abuse is threatening democracy in a speech to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the right to vote.

Mrs May spoke in Manchester one hundred years to the day that the Act, which paved the way for universal suffrage and gave women the vote on equal terms with men 10 years later, was passed.

Although a record number of women were elected to the UK parliament in last year’s general election (32 per cent of all MPs), abuse online is deterring many from entering public life, the prime minister said.

“While there is much to celebrate, I worry that our public debate today is coarsening. That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process.

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“In the face of what is a threat to our democracy, I believe that all of us – individuals, governments, and media old and new – must accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralist public debate for the future,” she said.

“As well as being places for empowering self-expression, online platforms can become places of intimidation and abuse … This squanders the opportunity new technology affords us to drive up political engagement, and can have the perverse effect of putting off participation from those who are not prepared to tolerate the levels of abuse which exist,” she added.

Mrs May said much of the abuse sent to political candidates disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBT community.

Amnesty International tracked abuse on social media platforms in last year’s election and found that black MP Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, received almost half of the abusive tweets sent.

Calls for British politicians to be better protected were renewed last week when prominent Brexiteer and Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg was caught up in a scuffle after protestors entered an event he was speaking at.

Mrs May has announced a series of measures to tackle social media abuse, including a review of legislation that means illegal actions are also treated as illegal online.

While the prime minister was in Manchester, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn toured an exhibition of suffragettes in the Museum of London.

Speaking ahead of the centenary, Mr Corbyn said there was still much more to be done to achieve equal rights for men and women.

"There are still too few women in Parliament, women still do not receive equal pay for equal work and many face discrimination in the workplace and in everyday life," he said.