Online abuse leaves local councilor “upset and really overwhelmed”

Galway City Councillor Clodagh Higgins has opened up on how she felt about the abuse she received online following a tweet she posted, describing those who sent hurtful messages as “vultures”, and comparing them to “the mob”.

“I was very upset, and really overwhelmed by the situation, and I have no issues whosoever showing my vulnerability on that”, she said.

She was speaking in relation to a tweet she posted online regarding a proposal she put forward for the installation of wheelchair accessible park benches in Galway City.

She has since deleted the tweet, after it received over 24 million impressions, she said, which were for the most part negative.

This comes after Dr Ian Richardson released a study on the online abuse politicians receive in Ireland.

“I do consider myself fortunate, because my experiences online, for the most part, have been positive”, Ms Higgins said.

This study stated that female politicians are significantly more likely to receive what Dr Richardson called “toxic comments” than their male counterparts.

Dr Richardson’s research pointed out that some female councillors received sustained abuse.

Ms Higgins did say, however, that she thinks it was easier for her to deal with the online abuse “because it was a once off.”

“To have that level of abuse directed at you on a regular basis, it would be exceptionally overwhelming, and you know, the online discourse, it’s horrendous at times”, she said.

“You can disagree with someone’s proposal or whatever they tweeted about, but there doesn’t seem to be room to constructively criticize or to even make suggestions to help develop an idea respectfully”.

Ms Higgins did point out though, that people have “the right to disagree, but the abuse is a completely different story”.

“It was such a negative space and anyone who tried to defend me was set upon. It was very, very difficult at the time.”

“You go into politics obviously to try and make a difference and to do good by your community. Nobody goes in to make it worse, and what I was being accused of was, I was anti-homeless, I was promoting ableism, and it was completely the opposite”, she said.

She also spoke about the positivity she experienced from people while she was receiving the abuse online.

“I had friends, neighbours, turning up at the house to see was I ok, I got a bunch of flowers sent to me by someone that lives in the area, and I’d never even met them before; cards were sent to me, and obviously a number of disability organisations here in Galway would have reached out”, she said.

Ms Higgins also seen that people from countries such as the US, Canada, and the UK were interacting with the tweet, and were, she said, “influencing the likes of Galway City Council politics. And that in its own right, threatens the very essence of our democracy.”

“I kind of think we have normalized [online abuse] for too long, by saying things like it goes with the job or goes with the territory, and I think we’re part of the problem too because we remain quiet, and that’s not good enough either.”

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