Editor's Viewpoint: Online hatemongers must be weeded out
In Northern Ireland we have had much experience in the past of the attempts to intimidate our public representatives, particularly during the worst of the Troubles.
Now, with the arrival of social media and the way in which it makes harassment and verbal abuse more easily achievable, serious attention must be given on all sides about taking effective measures to minimise this menace and, if possible, stamp it out.
Lord Bew, one of our Northern Ireland peers, is chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and he has warned that the rise in personal attacks and threats against politicians during the election campaign, and no doubt since then, may drive good candidates out of public life.
Recent revelations have shown that the severity of verbal attacks on politicians on all sides is increasing. Politics has always been a tough business, with a good deal of blunt give and take, but the situation has gone well beyond that.
Lord Bew aims to ensure that public debate remains vigorous, while steering clear of nastiness and hatred, but while this is a laudable objective it is difficult to see how this will become a reality given the experience of the recent past.
Lord Bew will conduct a probe into this unsavoury situation and will report back with recommendations to the Prime Minister.
He may even recommend new laws, if necessary, to deal with the problem, but even he admits that this may not be enough to stem the growing menace of this situation.
It is one thing to pass laws on this subject but quite another to enforce them. The police in all areas, including the PSNI, face a huge practical problem in dealing with an issue on this scale.
This is something which cannot be left at the door of the law enforcement authorities alone. Those major organisations like Facebook and Twitter, which benefit enormously from the social media revolution, also have a duty to weed out this kind of noxious behaviour and to respond quickly and effectively to help those who fall victim to this insidious anti-social behaviour.
Free speech and democracy are two of the most precious assets of our political and public life, and they must not be held to ransom by those individuals, many of them anonymous, who spread their hatred and bile on others who are trying to maintain the best standards in public and Parliamentary life.