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Social media threats to MPs echo early days of the Troubles, warns Bew

By Staff Reporter

A Northern Ireland peer overseeing a probe into intimidation on social media says the scale of today's online threats and abuse towards MPs reminds him of the early days of the Troubles.

Cross-bench peer Lord Bew, who helped negotiate the Belfast Agreement,  heads a public body examining social media abuse and intimidation. Its report is to be published this week.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Lord Bew, who is also Professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University Belfast, issued a warning about the corrosive effect today's vicious climate of social media abuse is having on public life.

"There is something new and bad happening, and our political class really shouldn't have to endure the scale of this.

"There's definitely a very significant increase in something that is going well beyond that line which is intimidation.

"The committee has a strong sense that this is a moment.

"There's a potential corrosion of our parliamentary democracy," the peer said.

Reflecting on his own experiences as a young man in late 1960s Belfast, Lord Bew said that some of today's threats and intimidatory behaviours had produced 'echoes' in his mind of things he had witnessed as Northern Ireland spiralled into violence.

"I was involved in the civil rights movement (in Northern Ireland) and I did see, before violence began, threats, and I do remember being in politicians' houses and seeing threats.

"When I see some of this stuff that's now online, there is an echo in my mind, there's part of me that says, 'Where have I seen this before?'

"In those cases they were green ink, sent through the post, but today people just press a button.

"And that's one of the problems, people press a button perhaps without fully leaving their own mental space and realising they really are impinging on somebody else's real life."

Lord Bew explained on his committee's website what he sees the difference between mere vulgar abuse and the kind of intimidation which he fears is intensifying in the current climate.

"Intimidation is not identical to abuse; it seeks to silence and shut down debate; and it can be intimidatory regardless of whether it is directed towards women in public life or those who hold particular views," Lord Bew commented.

"The idea of intimidation is that it intentionally uses words or behaviour to block participation in public life.

"Legitimate scrutiny recognises that public office-holders must be accountable for the decisions they take - and seeks information and explanation rather than silence or withdrawal.

"Intimidation aims at shutting down debate - cutting off participation and engagement.

"Tackling intimidation, far from threatening genuine democratic debate and scrutiny, will actually serve to enhance and protect it."

It's believed that social media companies will face stiff criticism in this week's report from Lord Bew's Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The document is believed to be likely to recommend that social media companies face a fixed time frame in which to remove threatening or intimidatory content

"We were frustrated, we had a sense that, given the enormous resources of these companies, more could be done to combat this problem.

"I'm curious to see how they will react," Lord Bew added.

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