Evening Standard headline

Recent studies question whether attacks on Corbyn supporters were ever justified

Dr Alan Maddison
28th February 2018


In a recently published study by the Community Security Trust charity (1), it was revealed that for the whole UK, over a 12 month period (from October 2015 to October 2016),  there were 2.7 million tweets concerning Jews, of which only 15,575 (0.6%) were considered to be antisemitic. The authors found this low proportion rather reassuring.

This CST study covered the period in which Ruth Smeeth MP claimed that, since the Chakrabarti press conference on 30th June 2016, she herself had received 25,000 abusive messages, mostly on twitter, with 20,000 of these sent over a single 12-hour period.(2)  Following this announcement Smeeth was quoted widely in the press as having said this abuse was being done in Corbyn’s name and that the Labour Party under Corbyn was no longer ‘a safe space for British Jews’.

The subsequent wide media coverage gives the clear impression that this abuse was mostly antisemitic, perpetrated by Corbyn supporters and that such behaviour had become ‘normal’ under Corbyn’s leadership.

The problem is that such a large number of antisemitic tweets, allegedly received by Smeeth, were not picked up in the CST survey which ran throughout that period. In fact the maximum peaks the CST team found were around 200 antisemitic tweets a day, and that was for the whole UK. This is a huge difference and needs to be investigated by the Labour Party.

While it is possible that not all of Smeeth’s tweets included the antisemitic key words used in the CST search, it seems unlikely that less than 1% of them did.

This CST survey is not the only prospective study into on-line abuse that raises questions about Smeeth’s previous claim about abuse becoming ‘normalised’ in Labour under Corbyn’s leadership. There are two more.

In one of these prospective surveys, by Liam Mcloughlin and Stephen Ward of Salford University (3), on-line abuse was tracked in 573 MP, for over 10 weeks from 14th November 2016 to 28th January 2017. Their results showed that MPs received a total of 4761 abusive tweets and that of the top 50, Corbyn and his supporting MPs had received more abuse than Labour MPs who had opposed him. In addition, those MPs who did not appear in the list of the top 50, including Smeeth, would have therefore received less than 50 abusive tweets over the whole 10 week period.

In a second prospective study published by Azmina Dhrodia for Amnesty (4), on-line abuse was tracked for 177 female MPs over the 6 month period from 1st January to 1st June 2017. Of the total of 900223 tweets received in total, 25658 (2.85%) were judged abusive.

Below are the top five women MPs receiving the most on-line abuse. Over the 6 months period there were two Corbyn-supporting MP victims in this top 5 group, with Diane Abbott getting around 8 times more abuse than the other four as illustrated below.

Source: Azmina Dhrodia, Amnesty Global Insights, 2017

Once more Ruth Smeeth did not appear in the top group for abuse, which in this study would mean she had received fewer than 5 abusive tweets on average each day over this 6 months period.

Yet again, in this study Corbyn supporters received far more abuse than others, both over the full 6 months period, and in the last 8 weeks run-up to the General Election, when Jess Phillips dropped out of the top 5 to be replaced by another Corbyn supporter Angela Rayner.

Diane Abbott, who had never previously complained to the media much about her abuse and death threats, received 8,121 abusive tweets over this full 6-month period – almost eight times more than any other female MP. Yet this exceptional number was still well below the 20,000 claimed by Smeeth over a period of just 12 hours.

The serious discrepancy between Ruth Smeeth’s allegations, and the findings of these three prospective studies, does raise very important questions for the Labour Party, given the obvious damage caused to its reputation.

With the national media coverage obtained, Smeeth’s repeated criticism of Corbyn, and his supporters, backed up by these on-line abuse allegations, has clearly contributed to tarnishing the image of the Labour Party, its leader and its members.  In one survey on voting intentions (5), one in three people questioned said they would hesitate to vote Labour because of its perceived problem with antisemitism.  So Labour’s electoral chances also seemed to have been damaged by such allegations of antisemitism coming from Smeeth – and a number of others. This despite the fact that the Home Affairs Select Committee, in their report into antisemitism (October 2016), stated that they could find no convincing evidence that antisemitism was more prevalent in the Labour Party than in other political parties.

Smeeth is reported to have spoken at a Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) meeting at the Labour Party Conference in September 2017 (6), about the need to ‘break and destroy’ the leaders of this alleged Labour Party antisemitism. Rather than improving, the atmosphere generated seems to be even more toxic and divisive than in 2016. Such words as ‘break and destroy’ could be taken as an incitement to violence against fellow Labour members. At the very best it is loose language that should be strongly discouraged. This would not be the first time though. Ella Rose, the Director of the JLM, was filmed threatening to physically attack the anti-racist supporter of Palestinian human rights, Dr Jacqueline Walker (7). These threats from a member of the JLM, an affiliate to the Labour Party, are obviously unacceptable and should not be ignored.

Sadly some abusive behaviour, including that motivated by antisemitism, exists across society and all political parties. It is offensive and intimidating and it needs to be tackled in an intelligent manner. But there is no justification for allegations that abusive behaviour, or antisemitism, being more prevalent amongst Corbyn supporters than other Labour members, or indeed the general population. The allegation that most of Smeeth’s abusive messages were sent by Corbyn supporters is very serious and needs to be investigated.

Implementing wide-ranging anti-racist training sessions, which would include antisemitism, could clearly provide a constructive approach. But equally clearly, the politicised sessions – currently proposed and run by the JLM – are not appropriate.

Such education should not be limited to Labour Party members, as there is no convincing evidence to support Smeeth’s implications that they have a “particular” problem with antisemitism or racism, nor that Corbyn’s Labour is “not a safe space for British Jews”. In fact, Corbyn-supporting MPs received more abuse than MPs opposed to him in both studies, which suggest more abuse is coming from groups other than Corbyn supporters, who indeed, based on these studies, have been unfairly demonised.

Given the serious electoral and reputational consequences for the Labour Party, its leader, and indeed the possible impact on millions of Labour voters too, it is important that the Labour Party undertake a full and urgent investigation into the 25000 abusive messages that Ruth Smeeth reported, and her related criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

References

 1. Antisemitic Content on Twitter, 2018 Community Security Trust

2. Ruth Smeeth: I’ve never seen anti-Semitism in Labour like this, its normal now, Evening Standard, 20th September 2016

3. Liam McLoughlin and Stephen Ward, Turds, Traitors and Tossers: The abuse of UK MPs via twitter, European Consortium of Political Research Joint Sessions, University of Nottingham, Nottingham April 25-29 2017

4. Azmina Dhrodia, Unsocial Media: Tracking Twitter Abuse against Women MPs, Amnesty Global Insights. September 4th 2017

5. Benjamin Kentish, Third of voters may not vote Labour because of alleged anti-Semitism, poll suggests, Independent, 30th March 2017

6. Jenni Frazer, Ruth Smeeth at JLM conference: ‘Only anti-Semites are weaponising anti-Semitism’, Jewish Times of Israel, 4th September 2017

7. Ella Rose (Israeli Martial Artist) Wanting to Take Out Jackie Walker #Israel Lobby JLM