Politicians from across Northern Ireland’s political divide have rallied behind a DUP Assembly member who has spoken out about sustained social media abuse over her appearance.
Carla Lockhart said while she had grown immune to the constant slurs she had decided to go public after a particularly intense spate of vitriol over the weekend.
Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill was among a series of political rivals to voice support for the Upper Bann representative, branding the abuse “totally unacceptable” and calling for action.
The abuse was triggered when DUP leader Arlene Foster posted a picture of her and Ms Lockhart enjoying dinner at a party event in Co Fermanagh on Friday night.
Both women were subjected to a torrent of abusive comments from fellow Twitter users, many focusing on their physical appearance.
Ms Lockhart said Twitter needed to take action, particularly to make it harder for “faceless trolls” to dish out abuse anonymously.
The PSNI said it was aware of the matter and inquiries were ongoing.
“The comments were very personal and very hurtful,” Ms Lockhart said.
“Obviously I am used to political debate on Twitter and I am known as someone who would be fairly vocal on Twitter but the level of personal abuse directed at myself and Arlene was totally unacceptable.”
In an interview with the BBC, she added: “Most of the time I roll with them and for anyone that knows me – I’m a tough cookie. But certainly from my family’s perspective it is quite difficult for them to read and to see these tweets.”
She said there was clear evidence of “misogyny”.
“We all have features that we would maybe change, we all look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and maybe think if we looked slightly different it would be wonderful, but it doesn’t give anyone the right to comment on them or to pass comment on them,” she said.
The MLA added: “A number of female politicians have suffered this on a regular basis. I’ve grown immune to it because I do receive them on a regular basis but that doesn’t make it right.
“It is bullying. It’s harassment of women in political life and it’s important that these people are called out on the type of activity they’re engaging in.
“Platforms like Twitter have to do more to tackle the problem. There’s no doubt of that.”
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann tweeted: “Online trolling unacceptable at any level and is only encouraged by @Twitter permitting anonymous accounts. Abuse directed at elected representatives and people in the public eye just too easy for big brave key board warriors.”
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Mrs O’Neill tweeted: “Well done @carlalockhart for speaking out. The level of personal invective hurled at you, @DUPleader and indeed many other female public figures is totally unacceptable. Time to act is now!”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long tweeted: “Just appalling to target @carlalockhart and @DUPleader like this.
“We need @TwitterSupport to put a stop to misogynistic abuse on this platform.”
Independent MLA and former Stormont justice minister Claire Sugden added: “Online trolling is unacceptable; Elected rep or not. I’ve experienced it & it’s vile. The nastiness says more about the troll than the person it’s directed at. Have some self-awareness & self-respect and don’t be a bully.”