NOEL KING, HOST:
In Europe, unlike in the U.S., governments have been holding the tech companies Google, Facebook and Twitter liable for social media attacks that happen on their platforms. Those governments got tough on tech in part because of the experiences of women in politics.
NPR's Aarti Shahani dug into the backstory in the U.K. And we should note that Google and Facebook are financial contributors to NPR.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Lisa Cameron is a member of the British Parliament. She's also a victim and survivor of online trolls.
LISA CAMERON: You feel very alone when this happens to you.
SHAHANI: Cameron was new to politics in 2015 when she was elected. She'd been a psychologist, a wife and mom, a trade union rep, the kind of person democracies want to run. But once she entered public life, the sludge of the internet attacked her, not just for her policy stances. It was personal. She says her inbox, Facebook and Twitter accounts filled with rape fantasies, anti-Semitic slurs - she is Jewish - pictures of decapitated bodies, threats to her family.
CAMERON: It makes you question whether you are doing something wrong in your job, whether politics is right for you.
SHAHANI: She wondered if she'd made a mistake, if running was unfair to her family. Then a horrific attack - not against her, but against a female colleague sworn in in the same class - changed the conversation for Cameron and for the U.K.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The murder of British MP Jo Cox shocked Britain and the world.
SHAHANI: Jo Cox, member of Parliament, was gunned down and stabbed on the streets by a white supremacist. Prosecutors said he was radicalized on the internet. His motive appeared to be policy - he was for Brexit, Cox against - but Cox's colleagues believe her gender made her a target, too.
The Prime Minister's office reached out to men and women in Parliament to ask if they'd been intimidated online. The final report didn't set out to spotlight women in office, but it ended up doing that because they had stories. One reported, quote, "people wish to see me raped. They wish to come to find my sons hanging from a tree because I don't care about men." MP Lisa Cameron said it was cathartic to speak up.
CAMERON: I had kind of felt at the start that, you know, I must have been doing something wrong until I realized that this is so widespread.
SHAHANI: In another study, a survey of Parliament, male MPs reported being insulted online for job performance more than female MPs did. But women reported far more threats of rape, death and violence to their children and loved ones. Online attacks were affecting real-world behavior. Nearly half of women in Parliament reported making fewer social outings. For men, it was 5%.
CHLOE COLLIVER: There are probably a number of politicians, especially male politicians, who were unaware that that was happening to the extent it was.
SHAHANI: Chloe Colliver is a researcher with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which helps governments study extremism. Colliver says the investigations didn't lie dormant in a dusty filing cabinet. They caused a sea change. Before, government leaders focused on Islamic extremism. But after, they began to see misogyny and the vitriolic hate of women as a rising organized threat. Female MPs organized in Cox's wake to explore how to keep women interested in politics.
COLLIVER: Her fellow colleagues, who obviously felt very affected by this incident, have themselves joined across parties to try and see action taken on this front.
SHAHANI: The clearest legal impact of this awakening came in a much anticipated blueprint for how to regulate big tech. The government wrote the abuse faced by women in office is unacceptable. The U.K. proposed hefty fines against companies that don't address this harm promptly. Chloe Colliver.
COLLIVER: A female MP who has death threats directed at her through an online platform like Facebook or Twitter or YouTube could take that complaint to a regulator if it wasn't removed in a timely manner.
SHAHANI: The U.K. is not troll-free, but women are now empowered in a way they were not just a few years ago. MP Lisa Cameron recently cast a vote against abortion. Pro-choice trolls sent her violent images and threatened to abort her. Now she says at least one internet giant is taking responsibility.
CAMERON: If someone is abusive online, I can have that dialogue with Facebook. I know who to go to.
SHAHANI: The company is helping her sift through the pile of attacks to ID real threats and refer them to law enforcement. That's a step up from shame, she says, and a step forward for democracy.
Aarti Shahani, NPR News.
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