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Local women in politics face more threats over social media than men

As Americans mark 247 years of independence from the British this week, the deep political divide within the United States has turned elected officials into targets of intimidation.

The same is true in San Diego County, where holding office is becoming increasingly dangerous, especially for women.

That's according to a study being conducted by local academics. They recently reviewed the Twitter accounts of elected officials in the county — mayors, council members, supervisors and school board members — dating back to 2016. Out of a cache of half a million, they extracted around 13,000 aggressive tweets.


From those, researchers found women are three times more likely than their male counterparts to be threatened over social media.

“Women tended to receive threats or harassment that were much more personalized in nature, sexualized in nature that involved family members,” said Rachel Locke, who is director of the Violence, Inequality and Power Lab at the University of San Diego.

The lab at USD’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice conducted the poll in partnership with the university’s Institute for Civil Civic Engagement.

Locke said while the sample size was small, women of color face “particularly high levels of threats and harassment.” Overall, local women elected officials reported receiving more threats than their male colleagues, 82% to 66%. Flashpoints include COVID-19 restrictions, gun rights and racial issues. Locke said the intimidation is coming from across the political spectrum. Moderates were targeted the most, followed by liberals, then conservatives.

“Both the survey and the interviews showed that this is not just nasty rhetoric that's coming from people of different political parties,” Locke said. “A lot of our elected officials reported getting threats and harassment from people within their own party, accusing them of not being enough, whether that's extreme enough, whether that's left enough, right enough, strong enough on a certain issue.”


The findings of the USD survey track with a recent national poll by Princeton University of local elected officials from different regions of the country. Of the 30 interviewed, 22 reported being harassed over issues like road repairs and affordable housing.

The next phase of the USD survey is to brainstorm solutions to reducing threats. A final report on all of the survey findings is expected to be released in late July.

Corrected: July 5, 2023 at 2:18 PM PDT
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the USD study of threatening tweets to local elected officials dated back to 2018. The review actually dated back to 2016. KPBS regrets the error.
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