Labour MP for Redcar, Anna Turley, tabled a Private Members Bill yesterday (4th July 2016) to crack down on the increasing number of cases of threats and abuse made over the internet.
As social media has become a more prominent means of communication, so too has the amount of offensive and vitriolic content, particularly directed at people who work in politics, journalism and broader public life.
For example, last year Paula Sheriff MP was sent a threatening Facebook message from a man who said: “Dead girl walking. Hope you get raped. We got your phone number and details.” Luciana Berger MP has been subjected to an organised campaign of anti-semitic abuse on social media. More recently, Middlesbrough South MP Tom Blenkinsop received a tweet threatening to have his teeth kicked in.
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg has faced sexist and hateful abuse online, whilst comedian Sue Perkins quit twitter because of bullying and threats including someone suggesting they would like to see her burn to death.
In a survey conducted by teaching union NASUWT, half of the teachers who responded said they had been targeted on social media in relation to their work. Abusive, sexist, racist, homophobic and highly offensive language were shown to be common. One male teacher said a parent had ‘threatened to smash his face’ in a post on Facebook.
At present, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidelines set out four categories of content on offensive social media content that warrant investigation and prosecution.
1. Credible threats (to a person’s life or safety or property)
2. Communications targeting specific individuals (including persistent harassment and ongoing abuse)
3. Breach of court orders (for example identifying people protected by law)
4. Communications which are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false
In the case of the first and fourth categories particularly, there is a high threshold for prosecution which means many people using social media to send abusive messages and threats are not investigated if they do not present a clear and imminent threat to their victim. Only communications judged to be ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘beyond the pale of what is tolerable in our society’ are subject to criminal law. The notion of a ‘credible’ threat is also vague and threats of violence are not being taken up by the police because they are not specific.
Anna has now used a parliamentary mechanism called the 10 Minute Rule which gives backbenchers an opportunity to bring forward draft legislation for debate. It is often so popular that MPs have to sleep out to reserve a place in the queue outside the Public Bill Office.
“Social media is a hugely useful tool to keep in touch with people and share information more quickly and easily than ever before. Yet the anonymity and physical detachment allows people to say things to others which they would not dream of saying to someone’s face.
Everyone, including those who work in public life, should be free to use the internet and social media without having to deal with a torrent of abuse or distressing threats.
For politics particularly, it is absolutely important that people are free to debate and disagree and that as elected representatives we are open to scrutiny. However the line between criticism or differences of opinion and vile abuse is repeatedly being crossed.
Colleagues from many different parties, as well as organisations and businesses including social networking sites have come together to start a national conversation through ‘Reclaim the Internet’ which is a really great campaign.
Following conversations with other colleagues who have had to put up with some of the vilest comments online, I have put forward this bill so we can also look at the guidelines around behaviour on social media to ensure the law discourages such activity.”