A former MLA who said “relentless abuse” from online trolls was a major reason why she quit politics in 2016 has called for tech companies to do more to tackle the problem.
Anna Lo, who represented South Belfast for nine years, believes there has been an increase in cyber abuse towards women, which she thinks puts females off going into jobs in the public eye.
She was speaking after Diane Dodds was sent a hurtful jibe from an anonymous Twitter account about her late son Andrew.
She said her thoughts were with the Dodds family — and added online abuse had been going on far too long.
“Certainly, you do feel sick and tired of it. It does take a toll on you after some time,” Ms Lo, who is originally from Hong Kong, told the Belfast Telegraph.
“It’s a hard enough job. I was well qualified to do other jobs, I’ve got a Masters degree and lots of experience working in the voluntary sector. You ask yourself: ‘Is it worth your while sticking with it?’
“On the other hand, you think you’re doing a worthwhile job, to be in politics, trying to make changes. You have to balance it out.
“Regardless of whatever a political party believes, losing a son is extremely tragic for any family, so for someone to make abusive comments about that, it’s really just not on.”
Andrew was born with spina bifida and died in 1998, just before his ninth birthday.
The Twitter account used to send the comment to Mrs Dodds has been deleted and the social media platform confirmed yesterday the post had broken its rules — three days after it said it hadn’t.
But Ms Lo, who was the first elected Chinese parliamentarian in Europe, believes tech firms can — and must — do more to help victims of online harassment and to identify the trolls targeting them.
“There is such high-tech now, surely if companies put their minds to it they could tighten the loopholes and do more,” she said.
“People should not suffer and be targeted by trolls.”
She pointed out that online abuse was a constant during her political career, often fuelled by racism and misogyny.
She recalled: “As soon as my name was flagged up by the Alliance Party that I was a candidate for election [at the beginning of 2007], I got lots of social media abuse.
“‘How dare her, standing for people in south Belfast? She’s not from here — send her back!’
“The worst were pornographic pictures of Asian women, and associating brothels with me.”
On reflection, she can now laugh about the callous comments, especially as many of her trolls hid behind fake aliases and blank profile photos.
But she is in no doubt this behaviour has a negative impact on people considering a career in politics, particularly women.
“I think social media is worse now,” Ms Lo added.
“It’s so unfair on politicians just doing their jobs.
“It’s a hard enough job and you’re never going to please everybody.
“But if people are just being very unfair and targeting you on your personal and family issues, it’s just not right.
“It’s bad enough to try to attract women to get into politics. I think the complex web around it, the sometimes adversarial confrontation and all that on television and in the chamber, that puts a lot of women off from entering politics — and then on top of that, if they think they’re going to face this onslaught on social media...
“They are real threats. It is scary.
“I remember I certainly got threats of arson and people saying they knew where I lived.”
She referred to the 2016 murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed multiple times by white supremacist Thomas Mair.
Last year Conservative MP Sir David Amess was also murdered, stabbed to death during a constituency surgery in Southend-on-Sea.
“They [those making threats] make you always on the alert, thinking: ‘Right, you have to be careful’,” she said.
“When people make personal comments, it does hurt.
“Whether you’re a politician, a teacher or whoever, yes you are public-facing.
“But people were commenting about my height, my accent, my eyes — these are personal insults and it does hurt.
“You can brush it off — ‘water off a duck’s back’ — and try not to get annoyed, but it can be relentless. People make fun of your appearance.
“And then with Diane Dodds — bringing up tragedies and such sadness of losing a child, to make abusive comments — is just below the line.”
Mrs Dodds, and Sammy Heenan, whose father William (51) was shot dead by an IRA gunman on the family farm near Castlewellan in 1985, made a statement to the PSNI on Tuesday regarding the guilty Twitter account.
Mr Heenan handed over a number of screenshots of offensive messages the account had posted to him.
Ms Lo revealed that out of a number of complaints she made regarding social media offences, only five reached the threshold for police action.
“I think four people got verbal or written warnings from the police and one was prosecuted. He received a two-year suspended sentence,” she said.
PSNI statistics show that, in the last five years, reported cases of online crime had increased by nearly 3,500. There were 4,445 recorded incidents between March 2020 and 2021, which included cyber harassment, obscene publications and sexual offences.