Belfast Telegraph

Carla Lockhart: Stream of online abuse can cut through even the thickest skin

After facing a barrage of vile comments on social media, DUP MLA Carla Lockhart calls for action against the internet bullies and trolls

Last Friday night I was having a really enjoyable evening at a DUP function in west Fermanagh. I was surrounded by people who represent everything that is good about rural Ulster - welcoming, kind and charming. My party leader Arlene Foster tweeted a picture of her and I enjoying the event.

What followed was an unwarranted torrent of personal abuse, aimed at both of us, focused on our appearance. What gives someone the right to say that about me or about my friend?

"Just ignore it. Don't let it get to you."

If I had a vote for every time someone told me that when discussing abuse on my social media feed I'd be assured of topping the poll at every election.

Truthfully, it is hard to ignore. Subconsciously, it can get to you.

Some dismiss me raising this as a symptom of the so-called "snowflake generation".

I accept that sticks and stones can break bones, but a steady abusive social media drip can break through the thickest skin.

I am accustomed to the abuse and have trained myself to ignore it, but I am a wife, a daughter, an aunt and a sister.

When I stood for election my family and friends did not sign up for having to remove themselves from social media because they don't want to see the abuse I receive.

Of course, if it's some policy criticism, I can take that - sometimes it's those closest to us who are the first to point out policy flaws - but this is personal, sinister and nasty abuse.

Comments that most people would not make in a face-to-face conversation. It is bullying.

Most of the time the abuse is about my appearance and being female. No husband, father, mother, brother, sister, nephew or niece wants to see the one they love abused in that way. So they shut the door on social media.

That is why I have spoken out. It's not about me - it's about the female politicians in the next generation and the families of politicians in this generation.

Receiving vile invective on Twitter is not unique to me, therefore we need to challenge those in Northern Ireland who think it is OK to make horrible online comments about people's appearance.

We all have features we might change had we the opportunity to do so. The social media bullies may well be examples of bodily perfection but some of us have less perfect features.

It takes all sorts to make the world go round: fat, thin, bald, short, tall, big ears, big nose, crooked teeth, no teeth or prominent teeth.

It is not what you look like but who you are that is important.

I am content in who I am. I grew up on a farm. My parents loved me unconditionally. I was taught to work hard, respect others and be generous to everyone.

I hope I have carried these characteristics into political life.

I work hard for constituents and have been endorsed by the electorate on four occasions, topping the poll on the last three.

It's simple things. For example, I wore a brace on my teeth during the 2016 election campaign. On promotional material I chose not to airbrush this out. It was part of me at that time.

I knew I would take hateful abuse for this but I was confident enough to wear it knowing that it would reap long-term good.

During that campaign it was raised more often in a good way than a bad way because there are lots of good people out there.

Mums would often say to their children: "See, Carla is wearing a brace like you." Then there would be the customary 'brace selfie'.

I have a thick skin - not physically, as I am quite thin - but metaphorically. I shrug the comments off.

This issue is not being highlighted now because I feel sorry for myself. It was the intervention of rival politicians on Twitter that made me decide to take the bull by the horns, go public and fight back.

I welcome and have been so humbled by the support given to me since going public. From political adversaries to men and women stopping me on the streets of Lurgan, Banbridge and Portadown. It is clear that people are appalled at the vile behaviour of a minority.

From the messages I have received it is evident that a lot of people are the subject of this but can't or won't speak out.

The perpetrators are normally faceless trolls. The kind of people so persuaded by their convictions that they don't put their real identity to their profile.

However, last Friday night it was different.

Two of the main culprits posted disparaging personal comments about me and did so from real profiles. It is one thing offending people under the cloak of anonymity, it is another doing it when I know and can see who the person is.

There is a brazenness, but also an unawareness that it is wrong. And what really struck me was that one of the culprits, from his account, has children.

A dad, he played golf and he went fishing.

What example is he setting? For what dad does on Twitter and believes to be acceptable, can soon end up on the playground where it absolutely is not.

It is not solely politicians but sports stars and tv personalities such as Rebecca Adlington, Beth Tweddle and local female journalists who suffer horrible abuse on social media.

There is a wider societal issue with abuse on social media, it is a form of bullying.

If children see mum or dad abusing people online then they will be more inclined to grow up to do the same. Indeed, we know that some young people have been bullied to the point where they see no point in living.

No one should be subjected to abuse online whether that be about their appearance or because of their political views. From my experience this bullying is done under a political cloak. No motivation is acceptable. It is wrong.

So what can be done?

The social media platforms need to tackle this head on. They need to ensure that the account holder has a verified identity.

Social media is like the Wild West at its worst. Many accounts are fake. One person can have multiple accounts to enable them to systematically abuse people. It needs policed.

Another step would be for the criminal justice system to raise awareness of the penalties for stepping over the line, but more importantly, the impact that online bullying and trolling has on lives.

This needs to start in our schools. Young people are the future generations and this is one of the most important social lessons they will learn.

If raising this issue will make one person stop before they send an abusive message online, then it has been worthwhile.

Finally, social media abuse is designed to bully but when writing this piece, I can't help thinking about Rev Robert Bradford.

He was an MP in South Belfast. The IRA shot him in 1981. That was bullying at a different level.

I am glad Northern Ireland has turned a corner and politicians are no longer the targets of bombs and bullets. I pay tribute to the previous generations of politicians who knew that speaking out was placing them in the sights of evil men with guns.

While there is no Assembly, I am determined to use my platform to tackle the sectarian and misogynistic abuse online.

Belfast Telegraph

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