How my spoof BBC Question Time Twitter account showed me the level of abuse political women face on social media

Operating a spoof Twitter account during BBC Question Time gave me a glimpse of the level of misogyny that women in politics face on social media every day.

I’ve dubbed tonight “the #vennfestfinale”—the final time I will be live tweeting Venn diagrams alongside BBC Question Time, in the hope of providing an amusing but politically pointed commentary on it. The show—which I’ve come to believe is the closest we have to Orwell’s vision of Two Minutes Hate—has an active Twitter community around it, and the running commentary you get from friends and experts in Tweetdeck greatly enhances it.

But #Vennfest isn’t my first foray into tweeting along to BBC Question Time.

I was the anonymous @BBCExtraGhost.

BBCExtraGhost logo

You were what…?

Yes, I ran @BBCExtraGhost, an account that provided running commentary on the BBC Question Time show from beyond the grave, featuring leading political and cultural figures of the past. Guests included William Morris, Robert Maxwell, Nancy Astor, Arthur C. Clarke, and Lord Reith.

But why?

I started the account because I was so disappointed with the execution of the real @BBCExtraGuest account. When it was announced, I’d assumed the extra panellist would be someone who wouldn’t normally get their voice heard on the show—perhaps even a rotating @sweden or @ireland style account for a regular member of the public. But the first guest was Toby Young, and it just seemed really lazy to have this amazing opportunity to add an additional BBC-sanctioned voice into the conversation, but then give it to people who were already very active on Twitter, and had access to mainstream media anyway. I made the ghostly icon and background and registered the account, and then chuckled to myself, and didn’t think much else of it.

The next Thursday I was pondering what to do with the account whilst walking to a meeting in Kensington, when I went past the house with a blue plaque dedicated to obscure 20th century Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law. “There’s my first ghost” I thought. And it took off from there.

The misogyny of political discourse

After a few weeks of running @BBCExtraGhost, I’d picked up something like 500 followers for the account, and had enjoyed a little bit of @-message banter with a couple of people. Then I announced that the next guest was going to be Emmeline Pankhurst, the first time it had featured a woman. Within a couple of minutes I got the first negative tweet I’d ever received directed at the account. And then a few minutes after that, without yet having tweeted in character, I got someone complaining that it was all going to be about feminism. And during the show people tweeted things like “Why are there no men on Woman’s hour?” at me.

It seems like even the threat of a spoof account tweeting in the name of a long dead politically-active woman brings out people who feel they have to try and intimidate and shut that voice down.

The pattern emerged every time.

Tweet a male spoof account during BBC Question Time using the #bbcqt hashtag, and I’d get some political joshing in return. Tweet a spoof account featuring a strong political woman like Pankhurst or Astor during BBC Question Time, and I’d get abusive tweets aimed at the gender of the politician.

It gave me a tiny, tiny, fleeting window into what it must be like to face this all the time as a woman trying to take part in the political discourse in this country. It has re-doubled my admiration for those who do, whatever their individual political persuasions.

So why stop?

In truth, I got a bit bored of doing it, and a bit worn down by the abuse of something that was, essentially, meant to just be a bit funny. And it turned out that I only really had two jokes and one political point. If I was pretending to be a socialist firebrand from the early 1900s, then I could moan that Labour had betrayed their principles and were nothing more than the lackeys of capitalism these days. And if I was playing an old-style Conservative, I could moan that the country had gone to the dogs, was full of fuzzie-wuzzies, and David Cameron didn’t know what he was doing. So basically trying to be either Owen Jones or Nigel Farage, but in the clipped tones of historical figures.

One recurring theme was something I do believe, and the slither of political ice that developed at the heart of the account. Few of the politicians appearing on Question Time today have ever served in a military conflict, whereas nearly every single character I “played” would have had an active role in at least one—if not two—major European conflicts. I think modern-day politicians spend a lot of time fretting about the EU without respecting the genuine peace dividend it has brought to the continent, and have been happy to send our armed forces off to politically-motivated wars without ever having faced the prospect of being part of a war themselves. I tried to get every @BBCExtraGhost to make that point in his or her own unique way.

I had a long list of people I was planning to feature as the @BBCExtraGhost, including Anthony Eden, Baden-Powell, Robin Day, Derek Jarman, Ayn Rand, Gertrude Stein, Mary Whitehouse, Ada Lovelace, Keir Hardie, Alan Turing and Nye Bevan, but in the end I’d rather do something, have fun with it, and then shut it without it becoming a sense of obligation to keep it going. I wish I’d actually put a definitive end to it rather than have it fizzle out, but isn’t that so often the case with digital projects? They just end up abandoned or left at an awkward juncture.

And that’s why I’ve decided to stop #vennfest tonight, whilst I still enjoy doing it. It will free me up to come up with some other way to vent my political spleen on Twitter when BBC Question Time comes back later in the year. So follow me at @MartinBelam for some political fun in about an hour.

10 Responses

  1. Paul McKivitt July 4, 2013 at 8:47 pm ·

    I would have liked to have seen the Nye Bevan ghost, especially with the Privatisation going ahead full steam! And Alan Turing is one of my heroes so him too! Still, better to have loved and lost, and all that..

  2. Andrew July 4, 2013 at 8:57 pm ·

    Awesome original concept, brilliant write up, …such a shame that people behave that way.

  3. Anamaria Wills July 5, 2013 at 7:06 am ·

    This is a great story. How fascinating that the reaction to female characters was so consistently unpleasant. The trouble is that it still takes you by surprise when it happens – I’ve perhaps been lucky but, in a long career in the cultural sector, I’ve only hit gender prejudice once. Took me ages to realise what was going on. That was 20 years ago but now I think it may have just happened again – I think (and I don’t know for sure) that I’ve just lost a gig for ‘inspirational speaker on innovation’ because I’m a woman. Very bloody irritating – Anyway, just venting! Lovely article and great idea – look forward to more -

  4. Sam Roads July 5, 2013 at 10:07 am ·

    Good article. The same misogyny is a hot topic in the world of gaming, where female gamers get a constant stream of negative gender-based comments.

    One ray of light is the growth of social media channels where participants use their own name, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Whilst there are still many spoof accounts, the average level of anonymity is lower, and this reduces the level of trolling.

  5. notjarvis (@notjarvis) July 5, 2013 at 11:51 am ·

    Fascinating stuff.

    How many followers does @BBCExtraGhost have?

    If it’s got a large following – are you tempted to turn it into something like @sweden or whatever where you invite interesting views for people to listen too like you thought the Extra Guest may be initially? Or would that be too much?

  6. Suw July 6, 2013 at 3:25 pm ·

    I was on Newsnight once, which for me was a major victory over my own fear (terror!) of appearing on a live TV news programme. Afterwards I made the mistake of looking at the Newsnight Twitter discussion, and almost all the comments were about how ugly I was, how stupid I was, how I shouldn’t have been there because I was clearly a slackjawed idiot with a brain the size of a pea. (Actually, none of the abuse was quite that eloquent.)

    It is a shame that simply being a female with opinions is reason enough for some to start throwing out abuse, but it’s good to see that more and more often, such behaviour is getting called out.

  7. carolmiers July 8, 2013 at 11:00 am ·

    I think it’s really important to highlight the misogyny mostly because I think it shows that questions need to be debated and answered and brought into the open.
    On the point about the gains that Europe has made in unification and peace. I agree and I have heard a French male historian and a British woman (who was at Bletchley Park) say that France will never leave Europe. I got the impression that the economics of it was of secondary importance.

  8. Field July 9, 2013 at 7:01 am ·

    Sooo this is all your interpretation of what is or is not negative comments. You didn’t post anything. The only mention is that when you said a woman declared on feminist issues would be on the show, you were shocked people thought she’d try and appropriate a tweeter fest for feminist? As if feminist are not versely well known for appropriating anything and everything possible?

    This sounds like a joke. I don’t know too many women that couldn’t handle the level of comments you’ve posted. In fact your idea of sympathy for outstanding -your opinion- offensiveness is demeaning to women. But on the off chance you’re correct and women are so utterly vain as to being able to not-accept a comment about someone likely to do something their life mission was about(Pankhurst), as if some greater collective would be fractured, is little faith in a gender.

    I’m not even sure what the point of your exercise is aside from looking for a problem (as opposed to approaching a real instance instead of fantasy). To what purpose? Score points with women? Have you not read on Jezebel how women don’t want you friending your way into their vagina?

  9. Laura July 12, 2013 at 4:46 pm ·

    What a clever idea and an interesting experiment. Sad to know that there such negative people out there.

  10. ERose July 12, 2013 at 5:26 pm ·

    Pretty surprising, isn’t it?

    But thanks at least for pointing out that it does happen. There are always people who believe that women can’t be considered reliable sources on their own experience, especially as regards experiencing gender prejudice. Another example supporting what we’ve been saying all this time is good, even if it’s not ideal that a segment of the population can’t bring themselves to listen to women saying it in the first place.