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Arlene Foster: My children received death threats from trolls targeting me

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Former DUP leader Arlene Foster

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster has revealed her children received death threats from anonymous social media trolls targeting her in the past.

In an interview with Talk Radio, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said it is right that politicians are challenged, however, on many occasions it goes far beyond this.

"There came a point when I actually stopped engaging on Twitter myself, and my staff were engaging on my behalf because the abuse got so bad it was impacting on me," she said.

"When you read that you should be strung up and killed... For example, when we were doing our press conferences outside at the height of Covid, there were beautiful trees behind us and we put up that we were doing our press conference. Someone replied: 'Yes, nice trees behind you, you should be hanging from one.' This is the sort of thing that goes on all the time."

Mrs Foster said such abuse crosses the line when it affects those closest to the victim, which is why she took a libel case against TV presenter Dr Christian Jessen last year, which was recently settled.

The host of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies was sued by Mrs Foster after he posted a defamatory tweet making unfounded claims that the former First Minister was having an extramarital affair. He lost the case and was ordered to pay legal costs, while Mrs Foster was awarded £125,000 in damages.

Mrs Foster said protecting her children from the abuse from trolls was paramount.

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"I want them to have as normal a life as they possibly can, being the First Minister's children, and that was tough," she said. "I'm glad to say most people did respect their privacy... but when people start to send them death threats, saying they hope that they die in a horrible way, you do have to react and protect them. The mother instinct comes out."

Mrs Foster repeated calls for social media companies to do more to tackle online abuse.

"When the absolutely disgraceful abuse was levelled at some of England's footballers last week, some commentators were talking about the fact that we need to deal with this anonymity aspect [of social media]," she said.

"I understand some people may not want to use their own names for various reasons, maybe they are in a job that doesn't allow them to express their opinion. But, at the very least, social media companies should have their real identity, so that, if they overstep the line, if they give out abuse, if they issue death threats, then they should be held responsible for that.

"I feel very strongly about that and, at the moment, the online harms bill that is going through Parliament doesn't deal with the anonymity bit. I feel it needs to and I hope to speak to the Secretary of State about that issue.

"I believe fundamentally in freedom of speech, but this is about stopping abuse and stopping harm, not just for people in politics, but for our young people as well. That needs to end. I have been speaking to some teachers recently and they've been telling me about incidents of self-harm involving young people - it's horrendous. The only way to deal with this is the anonymity aspect [of social media]."

Online racist abuse directed at some England players after their defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final has led to calls for the online harms bill to be strengthened, after critics branded it “watered down”.


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