Written by • Published 1st August 2017 • 4 minute read

By Hamish Campbell-Shore, Public Affairs Intern

Since the murder of Jo Cox in June 2015, Members of Parliament have had to become acutely aware of the genuine threat of online abuse.

Analysis by the ‘BCS-The Chartered Institute’ for IT and thinktank ‘Demos’ revealed that during the three-month period between 9th May and 18th August 2015, MPs received almost 190,000 abusive tweets. The report suggested that 1 out of every 20 tweets sent to MPs were categorised as abusive, with the most harassed politicians seeing around 10% of tweets they received containing abusive material.

This report has since been supplemented by research conducted by the University of Sheffield and BuzzFeed News. The study covered 840,000 tweets during the 2017 General Election campaign and highlighted the most likely victims of ‘trolling’. Statistics revealed that, overwhelmingly, Jeremy Corbyn was the most abused MP on Twitter, with the majority of insulting messages targeted at a small number of high-profile politicians. However, being in receipt of almost 6% of abuse, male Tory candidates were the most abused group of politicians in the survey.

Whilst the frequency of online abuse was targeted at prominent politicians and male Conservative candidates, the nature of the abuse varied greatly.  Professor Bontcheva, who conducted the survey, noted the prominence of gendered abuse: “The study showed there is a clear difference in the insulting words directed at male and female politicians. While some terms are common to both, female politicians received more gendered insults.”

The online abuse of MPs has, and will continue to tarnish, the political battleground until something changes. Most notably, however, what will certainly not change this abuse is the argument that furious hatred can be taken as free speech. Abuse is significant, ubiquitous and to misappropriate the tool of free speech does nothing but entrench the divisions that characterise modern politics.

It should never be part and parcel of the job and inevitability does not justify the shameful abuse that MPs receive daily at the hands of internet trolls. Free speech is, and should continue to be, an integral part of our democracy in the UK. However, the notion that politically motivated abuse can be construed as free speech, is nothing more than an empty platitude, utilised to attempt to validate ignorance.

Johnny Mercer MP, epitomised the way in which these concepts are intertwined. In response to Diane Abbott’s moving account of the abuse she has received online, he tweeted: “I’m at odds w/almost everything DA thinks politically. But I’ll fight endlessly to defend her right to do so, free of this appalling abuse.”

There is much to be said for allowing people the freedom to air their views online, as I have mentioned, the right to challenge and debate is key to holding decision-makers to account. Nevertheless, to not acknowledge abuse and freedom of speech as mutually exclusive, does nothing but foster the hatred that plagues modern day ‘social media politics’.

The redefinition of free speech into abuse is obviously not undisputed, and it would be dangerous to suggest that biting and barbing commentary should be completely prevented.  To condemn any form of disagreement with politicians as abuse will cement the seemingly growing disparity between the elites and ‘the rabble’. However, when the crude tongue of Average Joe turns into death threats, racism and misogyny, there is cause for distancing abuse from free speech, in fear of undermining this basic democratic right.

Where separation may be key when considering both free speech and unashamed abuse, it is certainly not when isolating the source of it. Paula Sherriff, Labour Member of Parliament for Dewsbury, has used her own experience to speak of the dangers of politicizing online abuse. Sheriff herself has been the victim of abuse from both the hard-left and hard right, and the Labour moderate believes that it should be viewed as a non-partisan issue. “There is a really serious issue, and suggesting only one cohort of people is doing it completely undermines the argument,” said Sheriff. “I know there are people in my party who do it, and it makes me very ashamed; I unequivocally condemn it.

Using the existence of online abuse as a stick to beat your political opponents with, does nothing to address the underlying cause of division. Puerile sentiments resigning nasty tweets to different corners of Westminster is nothing short of a catalyst for further abuse. What really needs to be considered, are the motives behind the abuse that is almost becoming commonplace.

Murderous, racist and misogynistic rhetoric is not borne out of political disagreement, but rather the desire to suppress someone you don’t agree with. The essence of free speech is that it exists universally, and when fear and subordination are introduced to the discourse, a line is crossed.