Online extremists are already influencing our election – but we can do something about it

Online trolls want to harass, frighten and silence politicians. But they only have power if their hate is heard or read.

Imran Ahmed
Tuesday 05 November 2019 13:56 GMT
Jess Phillips: I cried in street over 'enormous weight' of years of online abuse

Heidi Allen is widely seen as one of the more fearless of campaigners in parliament. The former Tory MP was willing to stand up to her own party over welfare policy and eventually made the difficult decision to walk away from the Conservatives in February, 2019. The fact she and so many other MPs, particularly women, are standing down due to the hate they have received is not a sign of their weakness, but of the dark place our politics finds itself in.

MPs returned to parliament after the 2017 election campaign reporting widespread abuse, some delivered in person, but mostly online. Threats made on social media and email have become a permanent feature of our democratic debate. With our society polarising further over the past two years, it is likely that this campaign will see even more abuse of those putting themselves forward for election.

We shouldn’t think this is just an issue for candidates themselves - this is critically damaging our democracy. Elections rely on those standing for positions of power going out in public and making their arguments as openly and often as they can. It is undemocratic for some to be bullied into silence, or too threatened to conduct normal campaign activity, because of targeted harassment.

Populists around the world, from Russia to the Philippines, use online troll armies to harass, frighten and silence their political opponents. In Britain, extremist trolls are having a similar impact. If these tactics are allowed to work and more public figures are driven to remove themselves from public life, we will only see levels of hate increase.

This isn’t a new problem, but with the general election campaign almost underway, it’s too late for further calls for social media companies to act or for the government to regulate - although they should. If we’re to stem this tide, we need to change the way react to online abuse.

Last month, the Center for Countering Digital Hate launched the Don’t Feed The Trolls campaign, providing a guide for victims of online hate. The recommendations are easy to follow: don’t engage with abuse, block troll accounts, don’t post that you’re being targeted, take a break from social media, and if it’s serious, record it and report to the platforms and the police.

Candidates at the next election ought to follow these steps and do more to minimise the impact of haters. They will want to be as open as possible with their electorate during the campaign, but they shouldn’t treat the online world any differently to how they would the offline world. If someone started shouting offensive abuse on the doorstep or in the town centre, most politicians would walk away and surely none would hand them a megaphone so the rest of their constituents could hear. Deleting or hiding comments on candidates’ Facebook pages, when they cross the line from criticism into hateful abuse or hateful language, also keeps the space safe for the vast majority who want to discuss and debate politics without harassment.

One of the reasons online abuse feels so “intrusive,” as Allen wrote in her resignation letter, is because we find it so difficult to escape our phones - we check them constantly. It would protect candidates, as well as probably help their campaigning efforts, if they delegated control of their public email inboxes and social media accounts to their staff or volunteers, who can then limit exposure to any abuse directed at them.

It’s not only those standing in this election who will be targets - political reporters now find themselves attacked verbally at rallies, as well as online, and many of the steps outlined above apply to them too. It’s important that journalists protect themselves from the personal hurt that abuse can cause, and they must not allow hate-filled trolls to vitiate their vital role of informing the public.

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Equally, a few hundred angry messages from extremists shouldn’t be confused with the vox populi. The tone of the election debate will also be affected by who the media amplifies. Trolling and targeting public figures is only further incentivised when those who engage in this are given platforms to justify their behaviour. Stories about hashtag trends of a few thousand tweets targeting a public figure should be ignored as stunts, not encouraged with coverage. Similarly, illustrating the claim that there was “outrage” at a public figure with a few angry tweets often simply amplifies the worst kind of voices.

This election campaign will see online trolls attempting to use bile and hatred to gain a platform and to intimidate their opponents. But they only have power if their hate is seen, read, and engaged with. Let’s instead do what we can to shut them out of our politics.

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