EYEconsider claims of an misogynistic online hate campaign against the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and struggle to agree with 38 Degrees decision to censor one of their own petitions.
Respected journalist Laura Kuenssberg has been subjected to an online hate campaign that appears to be a sexist witchhunt to silence her. Increasingly this is a tool used against people in public life by those who take an opposing view. Lucy Allan MP, May 2016
Immediately after the May elections, a Labour supporter started a campaign calling for Laura Kuenssberg (political editor of BBC News) to be sacked due to a perceived bias against the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in particular.
A petition was posted on campaigning website 38 Degrees which garnered over 35,000 signatures before it was withdrawn because it had been hijacked by misogynistic trolls.
Initial concerns were raised by James Kirkup the Telegraph’s Executive Political Editor who claimed that Kuenssberg was receiving significant levels of online hostility and abuse from Corbynites, including being described as a “bitch” and a “whore”.
Prior to this Jane Merrick from the Independent and one of Labour’s most high profile Corbyn critics had shared their thoughts about the petition on twitter.
Within twenty four hours of the Telegraph article 38 Degrees announced that the petition had been removed from their site with the agreement of the original poster.
We took down the petition to show sexist bullies can’t win. David Babbs 38 Degrees Director
The Guardian were one of the first to report David Babb’s assessment that the petition had been ‘hijacked, and used as a focal point for sexist and hateful abuse made towards Laura Kuenssberg on Twitter’.
He stated that the majority of those signing and supporting the petition expressed concerns about what they saw as biased reporting but that some had used sexist language when calling for the female political editor to go.
By the following day the incident had been raised in parliament with Lucy Allen Conservative MP for Teford asking the Prime Minister to condemn the abuse and ‘to work with social media platforms to preserve the right to speak freely without intimidation or hate?”
We must have a robust and lively democracy. But some of the things people say on Twitter, knowing that they are in some way anonymous, are frankly appalling and people should be ashamed of the sort of sexist bullying that often takes place.” David Cameron Prime Minister
Some raised concern that the petition should be shut down so quickly because of the actions of a minority. Some questioned whether it would not have been more appropriate to moderate or tackle the bigots, rather than silence the views of thousands.
Others questioned the actual extent of the abuse and the possibility that the petition may have been shut down following political pressure.
The first evidence of to substantiate the torrents of abuse from the ‘Sack Kuenssberg mob‘ came in Kirkup’s Telegraph column where he included this tweet:
Although he doesn’t specify how many, 38 Degrees Director claims that his team looked at comments posted directly on the petition and also on twitter before concluding that there were enough comments to cause a genuine problem.
Someone then very helpfully posted a copy of the comments left on the now deleted petition which show very little evidence of sexism.
The Independent News Blog The Canery conducted an audit of the comments and concluded that none of the signatories used the offensive language cited by the media. Out of a total of 878 comments they identified 6 comments that used ‘gendered language. Four comments used the terms ‘cow’ or ‘witch’, one described her as ‘shrill’ and one said, “I thought she was Bill O’Reilly in a dress”.
The Canery also reported that former UK ambassador Craig Murray believed that the petition was removed following ‘establishment pressure’. Murray claimed to have had a team of five people searching social media for evidence to support Babb’s claims.
He reported that they were only able to find one offensive tweet (‘which called Laura K by a expletive reserved for women‘) sent by a young man. Although the tweet refereed to the petition, there was no evidence on his timeline to suggest he was a supporter of Corbyn or a member of Momentum.
Conversely Guardian columnist Laura Bates also wrote about the controversy claiming that abuse aimed at Kuenssberg was not hard to spot on social media and included posts calling her ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, ‘slag’, ‘cow’ and ‘cunt’, an some had even said that ‘they’d like to kill her‘.
One post included a picture of a scene from the Empire Strikes Back with Kuenssberg’s face photoshopped on to that of Princess Leia in the famous gold-bikini scene and David Cameron’s face superimposed on Jabba the Hutt. It describes her as “Cameron’s slave girl”. Laura Bates
David Babbs continues to claim that; ‘it’s still possible to find sexist comments about Kuenssberg, linking to the petition, on twitter, if you search for them‘ although he concedes that ‘with the benefit of hindsight‘ he should have counted the exact number and taken screen grabs noting that some twitter users may have subsequently deleted their tweets.
In a post dated May 12 Babbs also specifically addressed the claims that there were no sexist comments on the petition. He claimed that their petition service has an automatic filter which removes common abusive terms and that users can also flag offensive comments for human moderation.
He went on to stand by his claim that there were sexist ‘horrible hateful comments‘ posted but was not going to publish misogynistic hate speech on the 38 degree website.
After initial reports about the petition being shut down EYEtook a look at twitter comments mentioning Kuenssberg and struggled to find anything that could reasonably construed as sexist. Apart from the post included in the initial Telegraph article, the only thing I could find was a post flagged by a Labour centrist which appears to comment on Kuenssberg’s appearance. It has subsequently been deleted by the female poster who described it as ‘an ill judged comment in a moment of madness (not my usual behavior)’.
Curiously I did find a couple of tweets that could potentially be construed by some to be anti-semitic and given the recent concerns about such matters, it is at least worth commenting on the fact that none of the media coverage mentioned this.
Even more curiously I could find very little to support the lengthy list of misdemeanors listed by Laura Bates. It’s possible that they were all deleted and one report indicated that some of the abuse occurred on more private facebook pages but interestingly no offending tweets were highlighted on her @everydaysexism feed. EYEwrote to Laura to enquire about her sources but have received no reply.
Given that the management of 38 degrees have stated that their decision was based only on comments on twitter and the actual petition combined with the fact that they are not prepared to publish the ‘horrible hateful comments‘ they are aware of it’s difficult to know what to think.
Now that the petition comments have been made public it appears that the main evidence available in the public domain to support the claims that it was hijacked by misogynistic twitter trolls are two tweets using a gendered expletive, one of which was written by another woman.
Based on the Guardian’s pick for top comment under Bebb’s article on their pages, it seems that this might turn out to be a tale too tall even by the Guardian’s extremely generous standards.
Does This Really Matter?
If you’re a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, or just support the notion of an accurate and balanced media or even just really, really hate online sexism and misogyny then you have a good reason to think that 38 Degrees need to provide some evidence to support their claims.
EYEhave recently written about three high profile claims about online misogyny that aren’t quite what they seem all of which have been promoted by Labour MPs to promote Yvette Cooper’s Reclaim the Internet Initiative.
This latest incident appears to be following a similar template with one very notable difference.
As with previous incidents, once again the mainstream media appear to be either have very suddenly fallen asleep at the wheel or more realistically, for whatever reason, decided to stretch popular notions of concepts such as ‘hijacking’ and ‘sexism’ beyond the point of credibility.
Last year Jess Phillips MP, Dr Emily Grossman and ‘comedian’ Kate Smurthwaite all appeared to consciously or unconsciously massively conflated genuine criticism with mean minded bigotry.
In this case however, in the absence of any real evidence of a misogynistic hijack, it looks suspiciously like a third party has imposed a sexism narrative to justify a decision that dramatically undermines the opinions of over 35,000 people, not to mention the very concept of online petitions.
As much as EYElove the Beeb, I’ve long since given up on the childish notion that their news feed could ever be described as ‘impartial’. Consequently I watched very little of their election coverage but when Kuenssberg’s predecessor and the former Chair of the BBC trust, amongst others, are calling ‘shenanigans’ then the many citizens who didn’t commit a sex crime last week may have a point.
More importantly these feels a little like the moment where conveniently timed claims of online sex crimes may have jumped the shark.
Let’s hope that some proper journalists do some proper digging in the weeks to come…