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Hateful Hashtags and Media Miscreants: enough is enough

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

A pandemic of targeted abuse is spreading - social media companies must step up.  by Sav Fishel

This July, influential people and organisations staged a 48hour Twitter boycott in response to the platform’s insufficient action against grime artist Wiley. Wiley’s explicitly anti-Semitic posts included the statement “I don’t care about Hitler” and a comparison of Jews to the Klu Klux Klan. Just last week, Dawn Butler MP was stopped by the Metropolitan police. In light of the incident, she spoke out against racial profiling, triggering a torrent of online abuse in the form of discriminatory slurs, violent threats and the spread of baseless conspiracy theories. None of this is new. No country is safe, and the UK is no exception. Since social media’s conception, cyberbullies and trolls have disguised their identities behind screens. Their words can spread dangerous ideologies, disincentivise a public or political career impacting our democracy, and have harrowing mental health impacts as in widely publicised cases such as the suicide of Caroline Flack. Online abuse is an ever-growing pandemic, with 87% of young people having witnessed cyberbullying, numbers which have more than doubled since 2007 [1].

But such abuse is not dispersed equally; girls (40.6%) are much more likely to be victims of cyberbullying than boys (28.8%) [2]. As shown by the treatment of Dawn Butler MP, it is not only young people at risk. Female MPs are three times more likely to face gendered abuse online compared with their male counterparts [3], and these figures rise drastically if the politician is Black or Asian. Diane Abbott MP receives more online abuse than any politician, with 1 in 20 Tweets mentioning her classified as abusive [4]. To write about online abuse without taking into account intersectional identities would be a grave oversight. Such hatred is not identity-blind, but serves to amplify the racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism and all other forms of discrimination embedded in our society. 

Social media differs drastically from offline life in that individuals can choose who they follow and interact with, resulting in an echo chamber of support for prejudice and bigotry. Although the law covers many cases of online abuse in theory, prosecution remains difficult, especially for complex cases involving ‘pile-on’ coordinated abuse or when abusers are not UK residents. Abusers are able to hide behind proxy servers and VPNs to render policing attempts pointless. Such ineptitudes within criminal law [5] mean that abusers are too often emancipated from offline shackles, their discriminatory words permitted to spread freely. Similarly, ReTweeting slander does not come under defamation laws, exposing the stark contrast to printed media. It remains all too easy for social media companies to claim that they do not have legal responsibility for the material uploaded by users and as a result they fail to act. 

With approximately 9000 Tweets sent out every second [6], increasing digitisation accelerated by Covid-19, and an escalating mental health crisis, tackling online abuse could hardly be more urgent. And yet, both social media organisations and the government have sent clear indications that this is not a priority. The Online Harms Bill which aims to introduce legislation to tackle abuse, misinformation and dangerous content fails to provide vital focus on intersectional groups. Platforms such as Twitter do have strict codes of conduct and yet there is not the legal framework in place to ensure these are upheld. The White Paper rightly cites the need for an independent regulator and yet the government have alarmingly delayed the Bill by up until 2024. Eventually, Twitter suspended Wiley’s account but as ever this act was too little, too late. Wiley’s Tweets are simply one well-publicised example in what has become a cesspit of targeted abuse toward ostracised minorities.

Through screens, the true discriminatory nature of our fractured society becomes more exposed than ever before. This is an issue that truly transgresses party boundaries. If we are to be a just and democratic country where intersectional identities and diverse viewpoints are protected and valued, politicians and influencers must make combatting online abuse an urgent priority. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] Law Commission has claimed that criminal law is inadequate to deal with online abuse: [6]

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