Over the past week or so I have been accused of being the “local Freemasons’ dogs-body” and “subservient to other councillors” and it has been suggested I should stop posting on social media. More generally, local councillors have been referred to as “rogue individuals”, “like a cancer”, “corrupt crooks who are abusing the public”, and it has been inferred (with regards to granting planning permission) they are “working in concert with local developers possibly for their own gain”.
Online abuse is a growing problem, which seems to have grown exponentially over the past year. People can be the target of online abuse for any one of many different reasons: race, gender, sexuality, political view or simply for being in the public eye.
A recent report to Parliament by the Local Government Association has highlighted how Councillors from ‘underrepresented groups’ (woman, BAME groups, LBTQ+ community and those with disabilities’) are being particularly targeted.
This would seem to be the case locally, where following an explosion in the use of social media to abuse Councillors and Council Officers, virtually all the abuse is targeted at female Councillors or Officers (despite females making up less than 30% of Councillors on both LLTC and CBC).
And whilst the advice from police – and perhaps common sense – is to remove yourself from social media, this prevents candidates from these groups campaigning on social media and stops them from being able to engage with local residents when elected.
The LGA says that “online abuse constitutes another barrier to women standing for election and remaining in office”, highlighting research from the Fawcett Society showing that nationally, only 35% of councillors are women.
Jackie Weaver – who came to fame earlier this year when videos of her chairing Handforth Parish Council went viral – contributed to the report, highlighting that the abuse also extended to council staff.
The report calls on Parliament for a new criminal offence to be introduced, making it an offence to intimidate a person in public office.
I know this suggestion will cause outrage in some quarters, and I do understand there is a need for those in elected public office to be scrutinised and held to account. However, there is a fine line between scrutiny and intimidation, between being held to account and being harassed. And sadly, there are a very small handful of members of our community who cannot tell the difference.
Whilst social media has given a voice to those who previously might have found it difficult to engage in local issues, it has also made it far too easy for this small minority to bully, harass and intimidate those in public office. The need for proper legal protection has now become necessary so those who do use social media in this way can be dealt with in just the same way as someone who behaved in this manner in the ‘real world’.
A few months ago, there was a widely supported campaign to highlight the problem of racist abuse against sportsmen and women on social media. This is no different. Online abuse has real-word consequences – whether it is racist abuse of a footballer, abuse of someone due to their sexuality, or harassment of someone who has different political views or opinions. On-line abuse causes real harm and distress.
It doesn’t take long to find report after report on the effects of online harassment, cyberbullying and abuse on social media. One report into online abuse against women – published by Amnesty International in 2018 – highlighted the impact of such abuse:
“The findings of Amnesty International’s online poll support the experiences of the women we interviewed, showing that the majority of women polled across the 8 countries who experienced abuse or harassment on social media platforms reported stress, anxiety, panic attacks, powerlessness and loss of confidence as a result.”
I would urge those who, in the ‘real world’, are normal, articulate, kind, caring people, to think about the consequences of what you say when you take on your ‘on-line persona’, and perhaps ask yourself why you say and do things online that you would never do in real life.
This is an extract from an article ‘The Psychology of Cyberbullying’ published in January 2021:
While some people are bullies both in real life and online, there are others who only become bullies in the digital space. Why is this the case? Why would someone bully others online when they would never do that in their everyday life? There are multiple possible explanations for this behaviour.
- Non-confrontational and anonymous – the first reason why people may become bullies online when they would not bully in their everyday life has to do with the nature of the Internet. A person can bully others online and remain completely anonymous. Clearly, this is not possible with traditional bullying.
In addition, online bullying can be done in a non-confrontational way, particularly if it is anonymous. This means that a cyberbully may skip about the Internet leaving nasty comments and not stick around to hear the replies.
- No need for popularity or physical dominance – in order to be a bully in real life, you typically need to have some advantage over your victim. This might mean that you are physically larger than them. It might mean that you are more popular than them. Or, it might mean that you have some sort of power imbalance over them.
In contrast, anyone can be a cyberbully. There is no need to have physical dominance or popularity. This means that people who want to bully can easily do it on the Internet regardless of their status in their real life.
- No barrier to entry – similar to the concept of there being no need to be dominant or popular, there is also a very low barrier to entry to becoming a cyberbully. Anyone with access to the Internet can get started. Friends are defined loosely online, which creates a situation that makes it very easy to bully others.
- No feedback from victim – finally, the last reason why people who do not bully in real life may engage in cyberbullying has to do with a lack of feedback from their victim. Cyberbullies usually engage in bullying over an extended period of time, largely because there is not generally feedback from the victim like there would be in a face-to-face interaction. Someone, who in real life would see the impact on their victim and back off, may not do the same in the case of cyberbullying.
I know this post will prompt some fierce criticism from, ironically, those who probably have most to learn from it. However, I have colleagues who have felt the real-world effects of online abuse – and are now very wary of using social media. I strongly believe that the online abuse of public officials needs to be treated the same as any other sort of abuse, whether it be online or in the real world.
Oh, and for the record, I am not a Freemason and I am nobody’s puppet – never have been, never will be. And as for working with developers for my own personal gain … I won’t even dignify that with an answer.
Read more about the LGA report here https://tinyurl.com/26hnzw5a
The full report from Amnesty International can be viewed here https://tinyurl.com/t785bu3
And the full report ‘The Psychology of Cyberbullying’ can be read here https://tinyurl.com/4v4te8b4