What do we need to have a strong democracy? Free and fair elections would be an essential component, but we also need the active participation of citizens in politics and civil life, and the protection of the human rights of all citizens, with the law of the land applying equally to all. We also need to have our politics scrutinised in a fair and balanced media – but that doesn’t happen through the rise in the trolling on social media, which doesn’t necessarily scrutinise policy but certainly makes attacks personal.
Of course, it is not just social media which we need to have a strong democracy that is properly scrutinised. In the print media we are seeing local newspapers struggling to stay open. This week in Westminster the National Union of Journalists are launching new research on local news provision in the UK and the impact on democracy. The research is being undertaken by Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay, Deputy Director, Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power and Research Fellow, Policy Institute at King’s College London.
When local newspapers are understaffed and on the verge of viability there is little time for decisions by local government or local MPs to be properly scrutinised or investigated. When the public cannot find the information or comment on the scrutiny of decisions made by their democratically elected politicians where does that leave democracy?
Digital technology has the potential to drastically strengthen our democracy. Political parties, local councils and parliaments are now using online tools to increase political engagement and improve the legitimacy of government. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have created unprecedented levels of transparency in political discourse and reduced the perceived ‘barrier’ between the electorate and politicians.
However, greater opportunity to communicate online has offered new channels for antisocial behaviour, with hate speech, intimidation, racism, misogyny and trolling becoming increasingly common online. Not only can trolling have damaging consequences for individuals but also for democracy itself. Some politicians are extremely cautious about engaging with their constituents on online platforms.
The rise in trolling also risks reversing the progress made in making politics more representative, particularly amongst women and minority-ethnic groups. A BBC Radio 5 live survey revealed that overwhelming majority of women MPs have received online and verbal abuse from the public and a third have considered quitting as a result.(1)
There is no doubt in my mind that women MPs are generally facing more online threats and abuse than their male counterparts. Just last week a local newspaper reported that Rachael Maskell MP and her staff had been supported by the police after very serious death threats. I do hope this shocked people, and that we are not accepting of this level of threats of violence against our democratically elected politicians.
This Tory Government need to do more to crack down on internet trolling to protect democracy. Yes, online trolling is illegal(2) and yes, the number of related convictions has risen gradually in the last decade.(3) However, trolling is still not being taken seriously enough by Government, police and technology companies. According to a recent report by WebRoots Democracy, “There appears to have been very little, if any, progress made towards tackling internet abuse of politicians, despite mass interest in doing so.” The online abuse which candidates face must be addressed to encourage participation from groups which can be targeted by these trolls.(4)
This youth-led think tank have urged the Government to create a Digital Democracy Czar, to lead on the Government’s response to issues such as fake news and internet trolling. As Labour’s Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs, I want to encourage greater participation in politics, be it from young people or any other age or social group, and I want to do this without worrying about the abuse these people may face online.
A strong democracy is a representative democracy. Yet if women, young people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds turn away from politics our democracy is weakened. It’s time to call out the trolls for the sake of democracy.
2)?Under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is a crime to send through “means of a public electronic communications network” a message or other material which is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.” Under the Malicious Communications Act, it is illegal to send threatening, offensive or indecent letters, electronic communications, or articles which are designed to ferment anxiety or distress.
3)?Online-trolling related convictions are rising gradually. 3 The number of people found guilty under Section 127, for example, increased from 143 in 2004 to more than 1,200 in 2014.
4)?WebRoots Democracy report entitled Hitting refresh on the Digital Democracy webrootsdemocracy.org/democracy-2-0.