EYEuse open source journalist techniques to examine the accuracy of media reports that MP Jess Phillips received a ‘torrent of online abuse’ after ridiculing the concept of an awareness raising campaign focusing on issues affecting men.
In autumn 2015 Labour MP Jess Phillips reported that she suffered a “huge torrent” of online abuse from men’s rights activists, including calls for her to be bound and raped, after objecting to calls for a Parliamentary debate on men’s rights. Source: Daily Mail
Some Time Earlier…
On Tuesday the 27th October 2015 Conservative MP Philip Davies presented the Parliamentary Backbench Business Committee with an application to hold a debate on a range of issues affecting men to mark International Men’s Day on the 19th of November.
Jess Phillips, who was a member of the Committee, couldn’t contain her amusement at the proposal, ridiculed the application and pledged that Mr Davies could have his debate once women have equal status within Parliament (‘which will be a very long time indeed’).
The incident received very little coverage but two days later the UK co-ordinator of International Men’s Day wrote about it in the Daily Telegraph criticising Phillips’ attitude.
He observed that ‘in an age when offending the sensibilities of anti-sexism campaigners can cause Nobel laureates to be sacked,‘ if a male politician had been caught on camera chortling at the suggestion that parliament should discuss issues affecting woman he would probably by now be facing a #SniggerGate media storm and calls for his immediate resignation and expulsion from the party.
This article lead to the ‘wave of vile abuse‘ directed towards Phillips on social media that was reported by the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Huffington Post, Channel 4 News, ITN News, BBC Newsnight, the Express and the Mirror, amongst others.
A Torrent of Abuse?
Most of these reports point to abuse directed at Phillips’ twitter account but an analysis of traffic to: @jessphillips and traffic from: @jessphillips over the relevant period show very little evidence of the ‘torrent of abuse‘ Phillips reported on BBC Newsnight.
torrent: an overwhelming outpouring of (something, typically words)
Indeed even some of Phillip’s tweets seem to indicate that the abuse narrative may have been somewhat overegged… given that she reassured her followers that ‘99.9%‘ of tweets she received were supportive and lovely.
Which is not to say that Phillips did not receive any correspondence that could reasonably be perceived to be ‘abusive’, it’s just that independent and openly sourced evidence to support this claim does appear to be extremely thin on the ground.
Based on the available evidence the Sky News report from Sunday the 1st November seems to be one of he most accurate and balanced accounts on the matter.
Sky reported that ‘the outspoken member for Birmingham Yardley‘ faced ‘death threats‘ and was told she should be “raped in front of everyone“. The emails, containing the threats were reportedly passed to West Midlands Police but did not lead to any prosecutions or police cautions.
West Midlands Police confirmed that: ‘an allegation of harassment was received in November 2015 and a thorough investigation launched in a bid to trace the person behind the messages. The emails were tracked to a server in Germany but it has not been possible to identify whoever is responsible’.
In my humble subjective opinion, even though Phillips does appear to (wether intentionally or not) clearly conflate a significant amount of criticism into ‘abuse’, her interview Sky News seems to offer a reasonably realistic account of her experience.
“I suffered a huge torrent of very noisy abuse from men’s rights activists, which, very unfortunately, led to a very dark bit of the internet calling for me to be raped, bound and raped publicly.
“The truth of the matter is that if any of these people were actually faced with me, they wouldn’t dare, they wouldn’t dare say these things. That’s why I’m not sitting, cowering in my home thinking that anyone who talks about raping me is actually going to do it. I’m not scared. But they would never say this to my face, mainly because, actually, I am quite tough.” Jess Phillips MP
Rape and Death Threats?
The very dark bit of the internet that disgracefully imagined Phillips being publicly bound and raped can be sourced back to two posts on a relatively obscure mens rights thread on a not entirely famous American discussion forum called Voat.
It appears that someone called Declan may have been responsible for bringing these comments to the attention of Jess Phillips, who in turn herself brought them into the realm of twitter after a fellow tweeter (@GoldenRulsey) suggested she should ‘retweet’ some of the ‘supposed’ ‘threats’ she had received….
Phillips also reported that “When I published that on Twitter then there was a [second] torrent of people saying that I asked for it, that it was my own fault.”
EYEfound very little evidence from her twitter feed to support this claim but again such comments may have been communicated via other social media platforms.
Phillips did claim that someone emailed her saying that they hope her sons ‘end up hanging‘. This would appear to be the communication which led to the allegation of harassment investigated by the police.
At face value, this certainly appears to be a grossly offensive message and was certainly taken seriously enough by the Police for them to direct resources into an investigation. That said, and in the interest of balance, it should be stressed that it hasn’t been possible to independently verify the exact wording of the email.
It may seem mean spirited to make this point but is fair in the context that much of the correspondence came from people clearly grossly offended by Phillip’s apparent disregard for issues including male suicide. It is at least possible that the correspondence could have come from someone personally affected by the remarkably high level of male suicide.
Whilst clearly an upsetting and offensive comment to receive it is questionable whether someone stating that ‘they hope [her] sons end up hanging‘ intended this to be interpreted as a death threat. Indeed, as some tweeters pointed out, while the two comments that Phillips highlighted could clearly be perceived as grossly offensive, it could be argued (at least technically and legally) that neither constituted an actual threat to rape the MP.
Furthermore the interview with Sky News does seem to indicate that Phillips herself was not especially concerned about her personal safety in the immediate aftermath of being ‘sent’ these ‘threats’ (by a supporter who found them on an American chat forum and then emailed them to her).
There is some evidence of other tweets that might reasonably be considered to be offensive or abusive but (again in my humble subjective opinion) there are not nearly enough to be reasonably or responsibly described as a ‘torrent‘. Significantly EYEfound no evidence of tweets showing intention to communicate death or rape threats.
In addition, some evidence presented in this study does indicate that the Member of Parliament for Yardly may be prone to exaggeration at times. It should also be stated that the fact that (whether intentional or not) it can be reasonably argued that the ‘torrent of abusive’ narrative helped to deflect attention away from the significant level of public criticism that resulted from the MP’s own dismissive provocative language and behaviour that could be (and clearly was) perceived as sexist and grossly offensive by many people.
There are plenty of examples in employment case law to show that even when someone does not intended their communication to be offensive or abusive it may still be reasonable for ‘the victim’ to feel offended and abused. Clearly the Voat postings would pass such a test and Phillips herself did highlight (and possibly report) some tweets that she found to be especially offensive.
One tweet she highlighted was sent by Mike Buchanan who is a former member of the Conservative Party, recent parliamentary candidate in the constituency of Ashfield and current leader of the political party J4MB.
Amongst the provocative language communicated in some of his tweets, Buchanan called Phillips ‘an odious sexist bigot’, ‘vile narcissist’ and in the tweet Phillips highlighted a ‘toxic feminist‘.
The other tweets highlighted by Phillips were:
- A tweet from @kapilera1 which is unavailable because their account has been suspended. This appears to have expressed the view that Phillips was ‘over reacting’.
2. Tweet stating: ‘you shouldn’t be allowed to have children. I feel so, so sorry for your boys. I hope they grow up ok’. It should be noted that Phillips’ response to this led to an apology.
3. A tweet from @damiensombody to @caitlinmoran @jessphillips stating: Look! This feminism is confusing. All I want to do is stick my cock in someone’s fanny. Am I allowed to or not??
Interestingly the resulting conversation trail shows that one tweeter found this comment offensive enough to ‘contact the authorities‘ while another opted to indicate that @damiensomebody should be chemical castrated and then lobotomised. Phillips did not acknowledge these responses.
4. The following tweet which Phillips described as ‘hurtful and vile‘.
5. A tweet stating: Comical watching @jessphillips trying to #CharlotteProudman her way out of her deplorable acts. One has to wonder if its Jess’ fans doing it
6. Although not referencing any specific tweet – Phillips does claim that some people were accusing her of ‘playing the rape card‘.
Fair Grounds for Criticism?
A review of her twitter feed over the relevant period certainly does confirm that Phillips received a considerable amount of criticism and complaint arising from the perception that she herself had behaved in an ignorant, sexist and irresponsibly partisan manner whilst preforming her parliamentary duties.
EYEdid not think that any of these could reasonably be described as ‘abusive’ and have included a small sample of these at the end for your consideration.
abusive: 1) extremely offensive and insulting. 2) engaging in or characterized by habitual violence and cruelty.
This analysis has been conducted using open source journalism methods. EYEhas attempted to be as impartial and unbiased as possible but, before sharing my conclusion, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my immediate instinct last autumn was to think that there was an exceptionally convenient timing to Phillips’ outrage.
Interestingly one tweeter did highlight the fact that Phillips isn’t exactly the first ever MP to get it in the neck on social media for their controversial views but these incidents generally go unreported. This example cited social media comments about Phillip Davies (who Phillips accused of promoting hate speech) calling for his death and contemplating ‘gouging his eyes out, kicking him in the nuts, zapping him with a few thousand volts each side of his head’ and ‘burning him alive‘.
And just over a month after her experience, it could be argued that Phillips communicated a death threat of her own when she promised that, when the time comes, she’ll stab Jeremy Corbyn in his face (as apposed to the back). Much to her annoyance this led to her trending on twitter after (as she described it) Corbyn’s supporters were ‘dutifully ready to clutch their pearls in mock horror‘ by choosing to take her words literally.
Just so we can get the record straight, and by that I don’t mean literally getting a record and unbending it, so let’s start again. I want to be clear and transparent, by which I of course do not mean that I wish literally for people to be able to see through me… let’s try again. I want to spell out, I (space ) D I D (space) N O T (space) T H R E A T E N (space) T O (space) K I L L (space) J E R E M Y (space) C O R B Y N (stop).
Don’t just see the thing that suits your agenda and flip-flop your own rage to make a point. Jess Phillips MP
EYEguess it’s at least possible that she may eventually come through with her commitment to stab her leader in the face (metaphorically speaking) but if he is hounded out of office by a virtual tsunami of anti-antisemitism smears or allegations of institutionalized misogyny then perhaps she won’t have to.
In the meantime Phillip’s own sense of perspective has been called into question on a number of occasions, most notably after a backlash from her immediate constituents when she compared a Saturday night out in Birmingham Broad Street with the New Years Eve incident in Colonge where over 800 women were sexually assaulted. The West Midlands Police were amongst her critics on that occasion pointing out that just five serious sex attacks had been reported in Broad Street over the four months period immediately following Phillips account of receiving rape and death threats.
There are a number of reasons why EYEbelieve it is worthwhile spending half an hour conducting your own independent and impartial analysis of the not insignificant claims about online abuse that Phillips has made.
For starters the elected Member of Parliament considered the threats to be significant and real enough to merit engaging the time and resources of her local constabulary.
Secondly, several Members of Parliament, on both sides of the house, frequently reference this incident when calling for new laws that may potentially curb or restrict rights to free speech and democratic accountability.
Phillips’ account was repeated verbatim throughout the mainstream media. Unless they know something that hasn’t been shared with us humble plebs then, whether it’s down to political bias, lazy journalism or the simple lack of resources required to fact check facts spoon fed by communication teams and spin doctors, then ultimately that could prove to be (ahem) problematic for our fourth estate.
Dramatic headlines about Phillips’ dramatic claims served to dramatically flip the focus of the story and dismiss a significant public outpouring of criticism by disgracefully portraying those critics as faceless misogynistic abusers.
EYEhas written previously about one obvious reason Jess Phillips is so afraid about the concept of ‘men’s rights’ becoming a popular notion. On the 30th of November there appears to have been a more obvious and pressing concern that may very well have motivated Phillips to judge her critics so harshly.
In the same month that a coalition of experts were urging the British Government to address the male suicide epidemic, Phillips was caught on camera casually attempting to veto a parliamentary debate proposing to address the issue based primarily on her dubious logic that ‘every day is international men’s day’.
As a consequence she was suddenly faced with a torrent of criticism from constituents and the possibility that some sections of the media or her poltical opponents might attempt to portray this development as the latest example of the #trending phenomenon of sexism twitter storms.
EYEsuspect that at least someone in her ranks had enough emotional intelligence to recognise the fact that it might look a bit dodgy if one of the Party’s new generation of self-identifying equality champions suddenly started taking serious flack for talking like a back bar bigot on camera.
Phillips will probably dismiss me as a lizard loving conspiracy theorist for even considering the possibility that she might have benefited from intentionally overcooking the narrative to deflect criticism. But maybe, just maybe EYEis on to something…after all there is plenty of evidence to show that her debating strategy often involves undermining her political enemies by accusing them as sexists or anti-Semites etc, while dismissing criticism about such tactics as the delusions of Illuminati obsessed conspiracy theorists.
After all why on earth would someone who has spent most of her career in the (almost?) exclusively female women’s rights sector and is a committed champion of equality want to silence the voices of fellow gender rights activists…