Can we protect our female politicians from social media abuse?on 24 September 2017
The use of the internet dominates much of society today. Recent from the Office of National Statistics has uncovered that 82% of adults use the internet daily. With the growth of the internet, we have seen a rise in individuals using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Currently, it is estimated that Facebook has 1.7 billion monthly active users. Twitter is estimated to have 319 million monthly active users. With such easy access to the online world, we have seen a rise in online abuse, especially aimed at those individuals in the public domain.
Women MPs and Online Abuse
The recent 2017 general election exposed the extent of online abuse aimed at Members of Parliament, particularly female and ethnic minority MPs. For instance, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott received almost 50% of all abusive tweets during the election campaign. During a parliamentary debate held after the election she spoke very frankly about some of the vile abuse she had been subjected to:
“We have to be clear that we are talking not about robust debate, however robust it is, but about mindless abuse. In my case, the mindless abuse has been characteristically racist and sexist. I have had death threats, and people tweeting that I should be hanged ‘if they could find a tree big enough to take the fat b*tch’s weight’. There was an English Defence League-affiliated Twitter account—#burnDianeAbbot. I have had rape threats, and been described as a ‘pathetic useless fat black piece of sh*t’, an ‘ugly, fat black b*tch’, and a ‘n*gger’—over and over again. One of my members of staff said that the most surprising thing about coming to work for me is how often she has to read the word ‘n*gger’. It comes in through emails, Twitter and Facebook.”
But online abuse aimed at female MPs is not a new phenomenon. We have seen countless MPs attacked via the likes of Facebook and Twitter in recent years. Back in 2013 Stella Creasy MP publicly spoke out after receiving explicit threats of rape on Twitter after openly supporting Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to get the well-known author, Jane Austin, printed on banknotes in the UK. Comments included: “rape her nice arse”, “if I met you in a dark alley you will definitely get f*cked” and “I will rape you tomorrow at 9 pm … shall we meet near your house?” In fact, Jess Phillips, a Merseyside MP, has spoken of receiving more than 600 threats of rape in one night alone on Twitter and had to have extra security installed in her home, following the abuse she suffered online.
The current law and social media
The law has started to intervene with online behaviour, although not always adequately. In cases concerning social media, a variety of different Acts have been used to prosecute individuals who have abused others online. This has included, all though not limited to, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Public Order Act 1986 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988.
One law which seems to have taken precedence in cases concerning social media abuse is the Communications Act 2003. The Communications Act (CA) was enacted to control communications facilitated by electronic devices but did not necessarily have the intention to cover social media. Like that of other Acts, this legislation has been adapted to apply to a social media context, as stated by Lord Bingham in DPP v Collins. Under section 127 of the CA, it is prohibited to send “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”
One of the main problems with the Act is the term “grossly offensive.” Issues arise as to what constitutes a grossly offensive comment. Under the Act, this term is not defined, and the courts have concluded that these words take their ordinary English meaning.
The lack of consistency which was present in cases concerning social media, led to the Crown Prosecution Service introducing guidelines on social media prosecutions in 2013, with these being updated in October 2016. However, these guidelines are not without fault, especially regarding what constitutes a grossly offensive comment.
There is no easy way to combat online abuse, but more needs to be done to better protect women online, especially those in the public domain. We have seen campaigns emerge such as Recl@im the Internet to challenge online abuse, parliamentary inquiries tackling social networking companies themselves and new technological advances to “block” online abusers; and yet abuse carried out online is on the increase.
Social networking companies have been slow in their response to protecting individuals from online abuse. For instance, it was not until March 2017 that a new feature on Twitter was released allowing users to block certain words or phrases. Although this is a positive step forward, it is not directly tackling the issue of online abuse. It could well be that companies such as Facebook and Twitter need to be more proactive in protecting their users. This is further demonstrated in a recent study conducted by Recl@aim the Internet and the Fawcett Society. They reported several abusive tweets to Twitter, including threats of rape, racist comments and abusive images of women, all of which breached Twitter’s guidelines. However, a week after reporting these comments, none of the tweets had been removed. Social networking companies need to be taking more responsibility for what is being posted on their sites, whilst also being more transparent in how they are tackling internet trolls.
With an increase in social media usage and its dominance on much of society, it may well be that we have now got to a point where we need specific criminal laws solely aimed at social media usage. As the law currently stands, it has been shaped and adapted to cover social media, but this has not always been done adequately. Specific laws, especially aimed at the protection of those being subjected to abuse online, could help better protect individuals. I accept, that there are arguments surrounding our rights to Freedom of Expression, but there is clearly a boundary between expressing an opinion and being abusive.
In a society that values the importance of democracy, it is central that we protect MPs' voices from being silenced online. The 2017 general election exposed the importance of social media in reaching out to the public, we must do more in order to use this form of communication to inform the public rather than as a means to abuse others.
Laura Bliss is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Law at Edge Hill University. She is currently undertaking a PhD examining Social Media, The Law and the Victimisation of Women. She tweets @laurabliss1991.
Image Kathleen Donovan CC BY-NC-ND