CYBER-BULLYING in the current council elections has become so chronic it’s a threat to democracy, say a raft of candidates who’ve been targeted.
This is the first local government elections where social media has played such a major role, with most candidates running Facebook campaign pages and vigorous debates flaring on sites such as Cockburn Chat, Melville City Chat and Freo Massive.
But trolling is rife, with Cockburn mayoral contender Lee-Anne Smith saying attacks on her this week were so vile she was left “hysterical” and curled up with her dog to get some solace.
It was only messages from friends and supporters that helped her get back up on the campaign trail with a renewed resolve.
“I have had private messages as well, and I am a bit speechless – I’ve never seen anything like this in the past,” Cr Smith told the Herald.
“I can be tough. I am known for that and I’m not afraid to stand up in the council and give as good as I get, but I am not cruel.”
Cr Smith says the attacks on her were initiated by a core group of Roe Highway activists but intensified after what she says was a politically-motivated stunt by mayoral opponent Chamonix Terblanche.
At the last council meeting Cr Terblanche moved a motion to lock in January 26 for local Australia Day events, but was voted down by Cr Smith, mayor Logan Howlett and several other councillors because a consultation they’d ordered into the issue was due to report back in November.
But that nuance wasn’t conveyed in Cr Terblanche’s Facebook posts which claimed her as the only mayoral candidate voting to keep Australia Day.
Cr Smith says the only way to deal with the trolls is to delete their comments and block their accounts, despite then facing accusations of censorship. Mr Howlett has taken similar steps after his first foray into Facebooking also attracted attacks.
Cockburn West Ward candidate Phoebe Corke says it took trolls just 20 minutes to find her after launching her Facebook campaign.
“I was being sworn at, vilified and threatened,” she says.
“Extremely personal attacks – outrageous and defamatory lies.
“I am unable to post anything on Cockburn Chat without being horribly attacked – so a platform of nearly 22,000 people is unavailable to me. It is the same small group of people doing the bullying, most of them hiding behind fake accounts.”
Ms Corke made an emotional plea for people to “be a bit kinder to each other” leading up to the elections.
“People are being hurt, people are being damaged; it is not ok in any way.”
Over in Melville it has been alleged that supporters of a controversial wave park have been behind a series of attacks on Palmyra/Melville/Willagee candidate Karen Wheatland, who’s standing against council veteran Patricia Phelan.
Like Cr Smith, Ms Wheatland isn’t a shrinking violet; she sails a tugboat at Fremantle’s port and says she’s encountered and dealt with bullying before.
But she’s concerned the online attacks are preventing her from getting electoral messages across.
“I just got slammed,” she says of one foray onto a chat site dominated by wave park supporters.
“They claimed I was a union thug, a Labor plant. They’ve done memes about me.”
She was also attacked for her stance on Roe Highway, even though she’d never publicly stated one.
“There’s a mental health issue around bullying, so blocking them relieved the stress,” she says.
However, she got a shock after doorknocking, when the online attacks morphed into prank calls.
Ms Wheatland says the trolls even took aim at her over her volunteering in a local netballing association, which left her greatly stressed.
In Fremantle, local businessman Michael Finn says online bullying played a part in his decision to withdraw his candidacy, although it wasn’t the main factor.
“It got a bit pointed on character and became a bit petty,” he says.
“You have to take [trolling] into account, but the negative camp are using that to their advantage and positive people are not stepping up – they are at some times,” he says.
Fremantle Labor MP Simone McGurk says the cyber-bullying has been raised with her office, and as women’s interests minister she’s concerned that it might lead to fewer female candidates putting their hand up in the future.
She raised the issue with federal MP Anne Aly, a Muslim woman who’s faced her own barrage and recommends blocking trolls and focussing on the positive comments instead.
“You don’t want women to feel this is an inevitable part of running for public office,” Ms McGurk said.
“One of the challenges of the online world is that it’s hard to legislate, but we have to call bullying out and say ‘this is not acceptable’.
Ms McGurk is in Geraldton this week at a conference which is looking at domestic violence, and says there’s lessons to be taken about online bullying, as they’re both issues of relationships that lack respect.
She says while it’s not on the same scale as the Russian hackers who attempted to influence the US election and get Donald Trump elected president, there are parallels because of the potential to influence elections. With optional voting in local government elections, a handful of votes can make all the difference between winning and losing.
Ms McGurk said there needs to be more discussion about the issue publicly, and more women in public office to tackle the problem, but says average citizens have their role in sticking up for people when they see them unfairly targeted.