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Twitter abuse of UK MPs doubled after terror attacks, says study

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received the highest amount of abusive messages on Twitter during the campaign.

world Updated: Jul 25, 2017 19:08 IST
Press Trust of India, London
Terror attacks,Twitter abuse,Manchester attack
The research by University of Sheffield covered 840,000 tweets.(AP File)

Abusive tweets targeting British MPs doubled in the wake of the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks in the UK, according to a new research.

The research by University of Sheffield covered 840,000 tweets and suggests that the amount of abuse in the run-up to the snap elections in the UK was heavily influenced by news events, with abusive tweets to MPs soaring in the wake of the two terrorist attacks.

It also found that women candidates were more likely to receive gendered abusive words like “witch”.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received the highest amount of abusive messages on Twitter during the campaign.

The overwhelming majority of insulting tweets is targeted at a relatively small number of prominent politicians.

When the findings were broken down by party and gender, male Conservative candidates were the group receiving the highest percentage of abuse in their Twitter mentions.

The government has announced an inquiry into the abuse, both online and offline, that politicians faced during the general election, following a debate in Westminster in which MPs detailed the abuse they and their staff had faced.

One MP said this was “driving people out of politics altogether,” but others have countered that the debate risks labelling all criticism of politicians as “abusive”.

Professor Bontcheva, who led the study, along with colleagues Mark Greenwood, Ian Roberts and Dominic Rout, all research associates at the University of Sheffield’s department of computer science, worked with BuzzFeed News to analyse tweets sent to politicians by a sample of politically engaged users.

These users were identified by their use of politically related hashtags in their previous tweets during the final month of the general election campaign.

The politicians included candidates standing for major parties who have a known Twitter profile, plus a small number of other prominent politicians who were not standing as candidates.

The analysis focused on tweets using obscene nouns, racist or otherwise bigoted language, milder insults, and words that can be threats.

Obscene language more generally was not counted as abusive as it was less likely to be targeted at the MP personally.

The study found the percentage of abusive tweets sent to candidates from all parties spiked dramatically in the wake of the two terrorist attacks during the election campaign.

In general, the percentage of tweets that the study flagged as likely abuse made up between two and 4% of all tweets sent to the politicians on any given day.

But directly after the attacks at Manchester Arena on the night of May 22, and in London Bridge on the night of June 3, the volume of abusive tweets doubled, before quickly declining again.

The bulk of abuse was received by a small number of the most prominent politicians.

Between them, Corbyn, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Sadiq Khan received over 50% of the total abusive tweets sent to politicians in the month the Sheffield researchers studied the tweets.

Major figures like Jeremy Hunt, Tim Farron, Diane Abbott, Paul Nuttall and Nicola Sturgeon – plus former prime minister David Cameron and former chancellor George Osborne, both of whom stood down before the election – also attracted significant amounts of abuse.

Between them, the top 10 most-targeted figures accounted for over 70% of all the abusive tweets sent to politicians during the period.

Overall, just under 3.9% of all the tweets in the sample were flagged as potentially abusive.

However, the study noted that this figure will include some non-abusive tweets wronglyidentified using the filters – for example, one false positive was just a journalist telling a LibDem candidate that they thought the band Garbage were better than the band Elastica.

Although it was not possible to automatically identify abuse with 100% accuracy, the researchers were able to extract the individual tweets and found some outright racist or misogynist, some obscene, and some merely mildly insulting.

Broken down by party and gender, male Conservative candidates were the group who received the highest percentage of abuse in their mentions, followed by male UKIP and Labour candidates, and female Conservative candidates.

First Published: Jul 25, 2017 19:08 IST