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Don’t let the online abusers endanger our democracy.

By Richard Pooley

Photo credit: Jonas Leupe, Unsplash.

“They’re only in it for themselves.” This is one of the most common opinions about politicians I hear on the doorstep when canvassing at election time in Britain. “Bloody politicians; they’re all the same” I more often hear as a full-stop to a discussion of some weighty political matter around a dinner table. Both utterances are not only fatuous, they’re dangerous. They’re indicative of the lazy thinking which permeates so much discourse these days. Instead of trying to find and propose solutions, however imperfect, to the many knotty problems of our time, we prefer to latch on to easily-understood but ultimately unworkable panaceas. And if They – i.e. those self-serving, money-grubbing politicians – don’t accept what we propose, that’s because They are stupid, in the pay of some organisation which opposes the proposal, or just not interested in listening to us “ordinary, hard-working” voters (implying that They are both weird and lazy).

If the invective directed towards politicians stopped at this relatively innocuous level, I wouldn’t be writing this article. But it doesn’t. Fuelled by the power conferred on the previously powerless by social media platforms, the abuse directed at our politicians has become so vile that it’s encouraging people to commit murder.

We have yet to learn what made the killer of Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP, do what he did last Friday. We do know that the man who murdered female Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016 was influenced by what he read on the internet and in books and pamphlets published by far-Right organisations. He had long been obsessed with the Nazis, fixating in particular on Reinhard Heydrich, the most evil of Hitler’s lackeys. He dreamed of a ‘New White World’ where ‘feminized white men’ would “regain their manhood” and kill “race traitors”. In one of the novels found in his flat he had marked up a passage in which “thousands of female corpses...are the White women who were married to or living with Blacks, with Jews, or with other non-white males.” His stepfather was black. The police believe he may have planned to go on and kill his mother after he shot Cox. But he only ever sent one or two text messages a year. He was not an active user of social media. However, in my research on Cox’s murder I was struck by a comment from Dr Gwen Adshead, former forensic psychiatrist at Broadmoor Hospital, on why Cox’s killer so loved the Nazis: “It may have made him feel that he was not alone. He thought he belonged to this group of people who felt the same way; that it was all right to have horrible, hateful feelings.” *

It is that longing to belong which largely explains the success of Facebook and Twitter. But at what cost to society and our democracy? Social media have made a large number of people think it is not only “all right to have horrible, hateful feelings” but also to become active in voicing those feelings and even to gloat when those whom they attack online are physically injured or, yes, killed. At least one of Sir David Amess’ fellow MPs has received a credible death threat since his murder.

I have met or known a number of British politicians, from ministers to MPs to councillors. Several held or hold views very different from my own. Yet all bar one have impressed me with their determination to do good, to solve difficult problems, and to serve the people whom they represent, not just those who voted for them.

During the last UK general election campaign in December 2019, I went out canvassing with Wera Hobhouse, Bath’s Liberal Democrat MP. Over coffee beforehand I asked her how much abuse she received online. She couldn’t hide her astonishment that I didn’t already know the answer: “Richard, I’m a woman, an MP, born and raised in Germany, and – perhaps you don’t know this – of Jewish extraction.” She could have added that she and her husband had once been Conservative councillors in Rochdale who had switched parties because they opposed a Conservative-backed proposal to build 650 houses on an asbestos-contaminated site. She campaigned hard for the UK to remain in the European Union. She’s a feminist and she’s a committed Christian. Her agent later told me that Wera regularly receives the vilest Germanophobic, anti-semitic, and misogynistic attacks online, many from people happy to reveal their names.

I’m not on Facebook. I don’t tweet. I still use LinkedIn a bit but not as much as I used to when I needed to sell my management training services online. After I moved back to the UK from France three years ago, I signed on to Nextdoor. When it launched in San Francisco in 2011, Nextdoor sold itself as the online place to visit to “tap into your neighborhood”. In the UK it still does: “It’s where communities come together to greet newcomers, exchange recommendations, and read the latest news... Where neighbours borrow tools and sell sofas.” I didn’t borrow any tools, nor sell a sofa but I did get some useful recommendations for builders and other artisans.

The pandemic should have seen the residents of my and other neighbourhoods in Bath flock to the site. But they didn’t. Or if they did, they soon fled. Why? Because Nextdoor has been taken over by people who only want to voice their grievances. Take, for example, a man who I will call MS. From what I can see online, MS appears to be a long-standing and successful businessman and a charity worker. If he is, I can’t imagine how he finds the time to run his business or work for a charity. There is not a post or an item of local news on which he doesn’t comment. And he always has one single target for his ire: Bath’s Lib Dem politicians – Wera Hobhouse and her local councillor colleagues. Whatever they do is stupid or yet another example of incompetence or corrupt behaviour. MS himself can sometimes write quite amusingly, though not very imaginatively; “flesh-eating zombies” is a favourite label he uses.

There is nothing new in the way MS is expressing his opinions. Vitriol has been directed at politicians in all manner of ways for centuries. What disturbs me is the attitude – and the language – of those who comment in support of his opinions. These people, none of them anonymous, express themselves more violently than MS does. And woe betide any individual who protests at the invasion of the site by the opinionated, or who dares put an alternative point of view.

Long ago I stood for election to become a councillor in London. Thank you to the residents of Church Ward, Chelsea, for electing the Conservative candidate instead (who has since gone on to do great things in the Houses of Parliament). One of my ward councillors in Bath, Manda Rigby, one of those effective politicians whom I referred to above, recently tried to persuade me to stand in the next local council elections. “No way”, I told her. The non-stop online abuse which she and every councillor anywhere in the country now has to take as the price of trying to do their best for their communities would make me miserable. Being a politician today is, quite literally, a thankless job.

If you’re a councillor, you’ll only be paid a meagre allowance to cover your time and the expenses incurred doing council business. The basic salary of an MP is £81,932. And, as we all know, you can also claim expenses. That salary is less than three times the average UK salary. Not bad, many would say. But you have no job security (ask any Lib Dem MP!) and if you never become a minister (the fate of most MPs), there’ll be very few lucrative job opportunities when the voters dump you. They’re in it for themselves? I don’t think so.

Some MPs and councillors are being urged by their families and friends to step down. Their jobs have become too dangerous. This is an over-reaction but an understandable one. I doubt if many will do so. But how many people will, with the talent and knowledge that we want in our politicians, step forward in future and offer themselves to the electorate as their representatives? Will you?

What can be done? Sure, the social media companies could do much more to deny a voice to the worst vomiters of hate on their platforms. That’s a ‘cancel culture’ I can support. But they’ll never be able to silence such people completely. Nextdoor, for example, insists that nobody remains anonymous and edits out the worst invective (prompting the offenders to turn their wrath against the monitors of the site and accuse them of being fascists etc., etc., in comments which are themselves edited).

It’s up to us, the silent majority who don’t have horrible, hateful feelings (or, if we do, have no wish to make them public), to stop remaining silent online. We’ll never persuade the hard core of haters to desist from spewing out the contents of their sick minds. But we might be able to make the likes of MS, clearly an intelligent person, realise that they’re encouraging the damaged and the gullible to do real harm to the people who represent us and, by doing so, undermining our democracy.

*Read Kester Aspden’s June 2021 article – Why was Jo Cox Murdered? -


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