In June 2022, the Minister of Public Safety announced that all members of Parliament are to receive mobile duress devices, or “panic buttons.” This was in response to threats and safety concerns that are on the rise for parliamentarians.
This HillNote discusses the scope of violence against politicians in Canada and worldwide with a focus on online violence and abuse; the unequal impact of violence on some groups of politicians; and some recent federal and parliamentary initiatives to address violence against politicians.
What is violence against politicians?
Acts of violence against politicians can be perpetrated by individuals (including other politicians), coordinated groups or the state. Violence in the political sphere can target politicians and candidates as well as their family members and staff.
Politicians experience three main forms of violence: psychological violence – actions or words causing mental harm or fear; sexual violence – unwanted actions and words of a sexual nature; and physical violence – actions that cause physical harm, including death. The Inter‑Parliamentary Union (IPU) notes that politicians can also experience economic abuse, including unequal access to funds and resources, and the destruction of property.
While there are numerous anecdotal accounts of violence against politicians in Canada, limited statistics have been collected on the subject. Most publicly available data are the result of academic and not-for-profit research.
Social media, the internet and violence against politicians
The Internet and social media provide essential tools for politicians to reach constituents and share information. However, these same tools expose politicians to a wide range of harassment and abuse. While this abuse may not always meet the threshold of psychological or sexual violence, it is nevertheless increasingly abundant and may contribute to offline violence.
Online violence against politicians allows perpetrators to engage in abuse from anywhere, often under cover of anonymity, and with few consequences. Given the difficulty of removing abusive content from online platforms and the potential for large, widespread audiences, online violence can be both pervasive and long-lasting.
During recent Canadian federal general elections, abuse directed at politicians was common on social media sites; for instance, in 2019, nearly 40% of tweets directed at candidates were classified by researchers as uncivil and 16% were classified as abusive. During the general election in 2021, researchers identified 20% of tweets sent to candidates on election day as “insulting, hostile or rude.” Within this subset of tweets, 37% were identified as “likely to include profanities or threatening language.”
Similar patterns of rising online abuse against politicians are also seen in other countries. In the U.K., for example, a 2017 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that “the widespread use of social media has been the most significant factor accelerating and enabling intimidatory behaviour [against politicians] in recent years.” A 2019 report by the UK parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights echoed these findings, stating that while social media remains a useful tool for politicians, “it is also used by people who anonymously threaten MPs [members of the House of Commons] and by those who whip up hostility and violence towards MPs.” According to research published in 2020, evidence of this behaviour was seen during the 2019 U.K. general election, with potential psychological abuse found in nearly 5% of replies to politicians’ tweets, an increase from just over 3% in the 2017 U.K. general election.
The unequal impact of violence against politicians
Politicians who are members of certain population groups – including women, racialized groups, Indigenous peoples, ethnic or religious minorities, and members of LGBTQ2+ communities – can be disproportionately targeted by perpetrators of violence and may experience the effects of violence differently from other politicians.
While data on violence against politicians as a group are limited, numerous studies, reports and initiatives have been dedicated to understanding and combating violence against women in politics (VAWIP). For example, a 2018 IPU report on violence against women in parliaments in Europe found that 85% of women parliamentarians reported experiencing psychological violence; 25% reported experiencing sexual violence; and 15% reported experiencing physical violence. While these statistics clearly demonstrate that women in politics are facing high rates of violence, it is difficult to understand the issue fully without comparable data for all gender identities.
In some cases, the perpetrators of VAWIP commit violence with the goal of preserving existing gender roles and restricting the participation of women in politics. Regardless of the intent, the harassment and violence have a chilling effect on women’s entering or remaining in politics, thereby harming the integrity and strength of democracy. An oft-cited example of the impact of VAWIP occurred in the lead-up to the 2019 U.K. general election, when at least 18 British women parliamentarians representing various parties decided not to seek re-election, citing daily abuse, harassment and intimidation.
When examining violence against politicians, experts have underscored the importance of using an intersectional approach. For example, an analysis of interactions on Reddit in 2018 found that gender-based hate targeting Canadian women in politics is “prevalent and transcends political affiliation.” However, while women from all political parties were subject to hate, those from minority groups received more negative comments overall and more identity-focused attacks.
Similarly, a study that examined candidates’ Twitter feeds during the 2019 Canadian federal general election found that while women, Indigenous peoples and racialized individuals faced similar rates of incivility as white male candidates, they were subjected to more frequent identity-focused attacks. The IPU has reported similar trends internationally, with women who are members of minority groups exposed to more sexist and racist violence than their white/majority colleagues.
The impact of violence against politicians can also be experienced unequally by members of certain groups. A 2020 Canadian study revealed that while many politicians have expressed fear of becoming the target of online attacks during a Canadian election campaign, members of underrepresented groups in parliaments express the highest degree of fear.
Figure 1 – Violence against politicians
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Chris Tenove and Heidi Tworek, Trolled on the Campaign Trail: Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics, 2020; Gabrielle Bardall, “Gender-Specific Election Violence: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies,” International Journal of Security & Development, Vol. 2, No. 3, November 2013; Inter-Parliamentary Union, Sexism, Harassment and Violence Against Women Parliamentarians, 2016; National Democratic Institute, #NotTheCost: Stopping Violence against Women in Politics, 2021; National Democratic Institute, Violence Against Women in Politics: Defining Terminologies and Concepts, December 2010; Toxic Twitter – A toxic place for women, Amnesty International, March 2018; Tracey Raney et al., Democracy During #MeToo: Taking Stock of Violence against Women in Canadian Politics, Equal Voice, 8 March 2019; and U.K. House of Commons, Committee on Standards in Public Life, Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Report, December 2017.
Recent federal government initiatives and parliamentary work
There is no federal legislation in Canada specifically designed to protect politicians against violence. Like other Canadians, politicians are protected by the Criminal Code. In 2012, Bolivia became the first country to criminalize violence against women in politics, followed by others, including Brazil and Tunisia. The legislation enacted by these countries was created specifically to combat VAWIP.
In Canada, recent legislative efforts to address online violence against all Canadians have focused on better defining and prosecuting online hate crimes. For example, the December 2021 mandate letter to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada contained commitments to legislate against harmful online content and strengthen hate speech provisions.
Work is also being done in Parliament to address violence against politicians, both within the parliamentary workplace and in general. Policies to address non-criminal violence and harassment within the parliamentary work environment have been implemented in both the Senate and the House of Commons.
Some relevant parliamentary work is discussed in the report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women, Elect Her: A Roadmap for Improving the Representation of Women in Canadian politics. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has also addressed issues related to violence against politicians via in camera work, like the Briefing on Security Risks for Members of Parliament.
By Laura Blackmore, Library of Parliament