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Abuse and ‘weaponised misogyny’ create security risks for councillors

Editor Written by Editor · 5 min read >

Council officials across the Waikato region have described the extent of abuse they face on a regular basis, including sexism, misinformation and targeted hate campaigns.

The issue is widespread, with all mayors and councillors spoken to by the Waikato Herald reporting misinformation and abuse spread about themselves and their work online.

Hamilton Deputy Mayor Angela O’Leary said social media had exacerbated the type and frequency of abuse officials faced.

“What concerns me the most is that things aren’t changing for the better, they are most certainly changing for the worse.

“At the moment, I’ve got groups going through my social media and taking old images and using them for disinformation.

“I feel unsafe, I’m starting to question whether it’s safe for me to attend public meetings.

Hamilton's Deputy Mayor, Anglea O'Leary, said abuse has worsened in recent years. Photo / Supplied
Hamilton’s Deputy Mayor, Anglea O’Leary, said abuse has worsened in recent years. Photo / Supplied

“I no longer say where I’m going [on social media], I only say where I’ve been.”

Hamilton West councillor Louise Hutt said the extent of abuse was overwhelming, and stemmed largely from misinformation being shared on social media.

“Those unmoderated Facebook groups are the scariest things I’ve seen.

“There is a targeted and orchestrated campaign in some of those Facebook groups about me. They’re making things up that aren’t true.”

That included cricitising her personally for decisions made before she became a councillor, or claiming she had free higher education, which was not the case.

Hutt recently detailed the online and face-to-face abuse against her in a Substack newsletter, where she described a barrage of slurs, including being called a “c***” on Twitter within days of announcing she was running for council, being heckled by a climate change-denying member of the public who called her a “silly b*****” at a candidates’ event, and being labelled a “s****y, ungrateful, entitled millennial” for writing about issues around housing security.

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said the underlying issues were complex, but that didn’t excuse people’s behaviour towards officials.

“Since Covid and since the financial hard times have been hitting people, we have seen that rise in dissatisfaction, we have also seen a vocal minority of people getting worse.

“Often what they’re circulating through groups is disinformation, it’s not true. They incite other people to dislike that person; I find that abhorrent.

“I think people need to stop and think about that impact on other people.”

Taupō's Mayor David Trewavas said people were often reacting to false information online. Photo / Andy Taylor
Taupō’s Mayor David Trewavas said people were often reacting to false information online. Photo / Andy Taylor

Taupō Mayor David Trewavas agreed the perceived anonymity of being online allowed people to leave comments that they might not say aloud.

“It’s certainly a definite sign of the times since the advent of social media- people do resort to their keyboards to vent their frustration on a certain topic.”

“We take notice – initially, you don’t think people are affected by it, but they are.”

Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Les Salt said misinformation fanned the flames of abuse.
Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Les Salt said misinformation fanned the flames of abuse.

Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Len Salt made the headlines recently because of an expletive used in an email to a constituent where he himself was accused of being abusive.

However, he defended his actions at the time, saying his outburst was a reaction to ongoing aggression directed at himself and councillors.

This week, he told the Waikato Herald councillors and council staff had a right to feel safe, especially those with a higher public profile.

“We’ve got about 230 staff; if they come to work they need to be able to do so knowing they’re in a safe environment.

“We’ve got councillors who’ve got their faces out there, they’re known in the community. If they’re taking their kids to school or walking the dog on the beach, they need to know they can do so safely.”

He agreed a large amount of abuse from the public stemmed from misconceptions.

“Some of this is driven by a combination of misinformation, or disinformation, about what happens with councils and our processes … but also a lack of understanding of constraints within which councils work.

“We are constrained by legislation, by constraints with our funding streams and what we can do with our limited amounts of money.”

O’Leary and Hutt said they felt the abuse was disproportionately targeted at them in part because they were women.

O’Leary said it was saddening and frustrating, but reacting to it only worsened the issue.

“It takes eight or nine [councillors] to make a decision that another elected member might be annoyed with, but the target seems to be only one or two of us, and we’re women.

“Anecdotally, what I’ve noticed over the last few years is that it does seem to be women that are targeted. I’m sure men are too but I haven’t personally seen it.

“We’re supposed to be quiet and be the bigger man, ironically.

“It’s not fair that we’re supposed to be demure and turn the other cheek. We’re allowed to respond, but when we do that’s treated as a problem, too.”

Hutt echoed the frustrations of being unfairly targeted.

“They’re putting all this anger and abuse onto just a couple of people when we need to have honest and productive discussions.

“Calling me a b**** is not what I would deem one of those things.

“There are cases within local government of weaponised misogyny and it’s really disappointing because myself and Deputy Mayor O’Leary have been put on this pedestal of ‘It’s all our fault’, when it takes nine votes to get anything done.”

Disinformation on social media "spreads like wildfire", said councillor Louise Hutt.
Disinformation on social media “spreads like wildfire”, said councillor Louise Hutt.

The impact of online and in-person abuse was threefold, councillors said; it took a personal toll on their mental health, wasted residents’ time and money and discouraged people from putting themselves forward for council positions.

Southgate said while it was important for abuse and threats to be reported, doing so took time and resources that could be better spent serving communities.

“It’s a bit of a cumbersome process, it’s not easy and it comes at cost to the ratepayer.”

Hutt said there was a growing need for security, which was an expense that could be avoided if threats weren’t made.

“I would hate to be charging security for myself back to council, but when it impacts our ability to do our jobs, it’s a frustrating cost.

“If we want to go out and do a meeting, there’s potentially a security guard that could be assigned to us, it’s getting that bad.

“I’d rather be fixing potholes and building footpaths than paying for security.”

Misinformation on social media also wasted people’s time, she said, as they were potentially reacting to decisions and processes that weren’t the council’s remit.

“I see so many unmoderated social media forums and Facebook groups where disinformation spreads like wildfire.

“All the abuse that I have received is from people who want to be involved in decision-making, but nine out of t10 have false information or are angry about something that’s not up-to-date or not correct.

“People need to understand how [council] works, otherwise other people will say it works in a different way when it’s not true.”

Trewavas said people needed to seek correct information from trusted sources.

“What I’ve always said to my people is to give me a ring and get the real facts – often it’s not the facts that they’re dealing with.”

Southgate said commentary, discussion and debate on political issues were all part of a healthy democracy, but personal attacks brought nothing to the table.

“At the end of the day, there are always going to be different political views and I respect everyone’s right to make a comment and have a view.

“The important bit is that they can disagree, and they can disagree strongly, but they cannot abuse people on social media.”

Labour MP Megan Woods is among female politicians who have been targeted nationally. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour MP Megan Woods is among female politicians who have been targeted nationally. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Writing for The Conversation last year, University of Canterbury senior lecturer in law Cassandra Mudgway said the Government should act urgently to address gender-based violence, both online and offline.

She cited numerous examples including the “relentless campaign of online harassment and increasingly gendered abuse” in 2021 against Christchurch City councillor Sara Templeton and other female leaders, including Mayor Lianne Dalziel and Labour MPs Sarah Pallett and Megan Woods.

Mudgway said the law, including the Harmful Digital Communications Act, had two key weaknesses when it came to gender-based violence; firstly, the victim must show the harmful content had caused serious emotional distress, which could be difficult to prove because the real harm lay in the “barrage of abusive comments from numerous people all at once”.

She also said female politicians often did not report abuse, “leaving perpetrators to continue with impunity”.

Milly Fullick is a journalist based in Taupō. She joined the Taupō and Tūrangi Herald team in 2022.

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