Our Politics is Becoming Toxic, Social Networks Need to Do More to Stop the Abuse of MPs.

by Thomas Locke

Diane Abbot
MPs are no strangers to abuse and many would argue that such abuse is intrinsically linked to their job. But, thanks to modern technology and the ability to be anonymous online, the level of targeted abuse has increased dramatically, with over 50% of MPs saying that the last UK General Election was the worst for abuse. The type of abuse MPs receive is mindless and characteristically racist and sexist and MPs receive this 24/7 through a variety of channels such as Facebook, Twitter and email. Now, the Electoral Commission has suggested that online trolls, those who send such abuse regularly, may be banned from voting. I would like to argue that this problem exists in the very fabric of our society and is a barrier for social development. Instead of blaming our MPs, insisting that they should grow a thicker skin, we should focus on the root cause of the problem and work with social networks to resolve this issue and make the internet a safer place to be.

When the Electoral Commission came out with their statement that those who abuse MPs online should be banned from voting, they were met with strong and mixed opinions. But we need to remember that these people who abuse MPs do not care about the vote or any sense of democracy and I would argue that such a punishment would act as a strong deterrent to those wanting to following in their footsteps. Tools such as Facebook and Twitter are great tools for communication and to keep constituents informed but have a huge downside, that downside being anonymity. I believe that social platforms should hold a user's address, real name and provide verification of their credentials, whether that be ID or a passport. That alone, will help prevent this intolerable tidal wave of mindless abuse.

There is also a lot that we need to do socially. Over the last few months we’ve seen trends dominate the online world. Take so-called roasting, deliberately making fun of an individual for entertainment purposes. We’ve also seen diss tracks between content creators on YouTube circulating our streaming services and whilst most of these tensions are largely fabricated and to boost online presence, this truism may not be received or understood by all. Furthermore, we can see US television presenter Jimmy Fallon using abusive tweets as a part of a series on his nightly show where guests read out frankly horrible tweets for entertainment purposes. To look more recently, we can see Sarahah, an innocent app on the outside with real danger on the inside. This app allows individuals to create their own link to an online forum where anonymous users discuss them, in some cases, in a complimentary manner, but, more often than not, picking them apart for who they are. Perhaps racially, sexually or based on other trivial factors of an individual.

We need to act now, clamp down on abuse and move on. If not, we will see more abuse online and it won’t be a safe place. It will be a cesspit for drama-seeking fools who think that they can just hide behind a screen and get away with it. Why? Because they can.

Let’s observe a case study. Someone who has been all over our TV screens, newspapers and radio stations sharing her experience of online abuse. I’m talking about Diane Abbott, the Labour MP for Hackney and Shadow Home Secretary. She receives an intolerable tidal wave of abuse 24/7 and, unfortunately, it has affected her. She argues that today, it’s much easier to abuse an MP or anyone else for that matter due to the widened accessibility and available platforms to share hate anonymously. When she came into parliament 30 years ago, if you wanted to abuse an MP, you would literally have to write a letter and put it in a post box. Now, you can share abuse with just one click. To give you an idea of the type of abuse that she has received, I would like to share a few examples with you. She has received death threats, rape threats, people tweeting that she should be hanged. An EDL-affiliated Twitter account used the hashtag #burndianeabbott. This sort of abuse comes in through a variety of mediums such as emails, Twitter and Facebook. It is simply unacceptable and morally wrong.

One of the biggest defences of this abuse is freedom of speech. I totally respect freedom of speech and understand how it can be such a powerful tool to empower and respect people. There would be no debate, and I wouldn’t be here today, if those individuals tweeted Diane saying that they disagreed with her politics or they had an issue with one of her policies. That’s fine. That is, essentially, what Twitter is for: sharing opinions. What Twitter is not for is mindless abuse. Racist, sexist and downright rude abuse.