University of Sheffield research shows MP Twitter abuse doubled after terror attacks

New Delhi: Analysis of 840,000 tweets found abuse in run-up to the general election was heavily influenced by news events
Jeremy Corbyn received the most Twitter abuse

Abusive tweets targeting MPs doubled in the wake of the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks, according to new research conducted by the University of Sheffield and BuzzFeed News.

The study led by Professor Kalina Bontcheva, from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield, reveals for the first time the scale of abuse faced by politicians on Twitter during the general election campaign.

The research covered 840,000 tweets and suggests that the amount of abuse in the run-up to the snap election 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”.

Jeremy Corbyn was the politician who 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, 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 four per cent of all tweets sent to the politicians on any given day.

But directly after the attacks at Manchester Arena on the night of 22 May, and in London Bridge on the night of 3 June, 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, Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Sadiq Khan received over 50 per cent 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 per cent of all the abusive tweets sent to politicians during the period.

Overall, just under 3.9 per cent 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 wrongly identified using the filters – for example, one false positive was just a journalist telling a Lib Dem candidate that they thought the band Garbage were better than the band Elastica.

Although it was not possible to automatically identify abuse with 100 per cent 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.

Professor Bontcheva said: “The study showed there is a clear difference in the insulting words directed at male and female politicians. While some terms are common to both, female politicians received more gendered insults.”

She added: “A lot of the discussion of online abuse has focused on obsessive “trolls” who bombard their targets with abuse but our research found very few Twitter users who sent significant numbers of genuinely abusive tweets.”
The study is being funded by SoBigData and EPSRC fellowship funding.