Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why we should all be alarmed at the threats to BBC's Kuenssberg

It's become too easy to issue abuse online, but people must not be left fearing for their personal safety, says Eilis O'Hanlon

The letter wasn't in green ink, but it had been handwritten, slipped into an envelope, and popped in the post. I couldn't help feeling heartened. Thank heavens for some good old-fashioned hate mail. In an age of instant communication, that's what you call commitment.

These days anyone who doesn't like what another person has publicly said or written usually just dashes off a quick tweet informing them that they don't know their rear end from their cubital joint, then leaves it at that. That's probably why there's so much online abuse. It's easy to do. It requires no effort whatsoever.

Normally, when confronting someone face to face, you need to psych yourself up to see the hurt in their face. Unless you're a sociopath, it'll make you feel bad. You might still do it anyway, but there's a psychological price to pay. Online is different. People can say the most cruel, malicious things without any consequences. So they do.

Such is the torrent of trolling that the Twitter mob even attacked BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg for being assigned bodyguards during this week's Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth.

Things have obviously gone further than a few nasty tweets if one of the country's most senior television journalists needs a team of burly security men to keep her safe, but it shows what can happen when a campaign of online abuse gets out of hand.

Kuenssberg has become a hate figure amongst more fanatical followers of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who accuse her of bias. Not cracking down on this sexist bullying when it began has led to a situation where the BBC worries about her safety when she's out and about, doing her job.

The dividing line between online abuse and physical threat is getting thinner. It may even be that one leads inevitably to the other. Vilify a woman often enough and some are bound to decide she's a legitimate target for more direct attack. Empathy breaks down. It's a troubling new form of the old excuse that a woman is "asking for it".

It's a moot point whether women get more online abuse than men. Male politicians and journalists would say they receive plenty of threatening messages too. It's also debatable whether men are worse than women when it comes to dishing out the vitriol. A study last year showed that half the offensive tweets sent to women containing the word "slut" and "whore" were actually from other women.

But it's undeniably the case that women with high profile roles such as Laura Kuenssberg do incite a very particular form of abuse that focusses on the fact that they're women. Men get abuse, but not because they're men.

The insults directed at men will generally, however rude, stick to the point, whereas with female public figures they concentrate disproportionately on their looks, shape, and other physical attributes.

Female politicians, including DUP leader Arlene Foster and Labour's Diane Abbott, who expect fierce criticism as part of the job description, get the same highly personalised treatment. Abbott may be utterly unfit to be Home Secretary, but her waistline surely has very little to do with it. Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller even received rape threats when she took the government to court last year.

The abuse must take its toll. These women are all tough cookies, but they're not robots.

What can be done about it? Precious little, in all honesty. Evidence may suggest that social media intensifies the increasingly nasty tenor of public debate - though anyone who thinks that political discourse was nicer before Twitter and Facebook has obviously forgotten Britain in the 1980s, or Northern Ireland since, well, forever - but it doesn't create it.

It simply provides an outlet for the desire. That's the uncomfortable truth. Trolls have always been with us. It's just that they never had such a powerful weapon at their disposal.

Even the US President uses Twitter to personally slap down his critics, so it's difficult to tell Joe Soap to behave more responsibly.

Many of the worst culprits also have mental health issues. That's not to make excuses for their behaviour, but it does provide some context. The people who've been jailed for sending menacing tweets have tended to be pathetic, rather than scary, individuals.

Putting them in prison was unlikely to help. With little else going on in their lives, haranguing strangers online makes trolls feel momentarily powerful, especially when others "like" or retweet the comments. Approval encourages them to go further.

It's equally important that those on the receiving end acknowledge the difference between legitimate criticism, however forceful, and genuine trolling. They're not the same thing.

All too often, politicians and journalists jump on the bandwagon and shout "me too!" when some particularly extreme example of internet abuse hits the headlines.

The phrase "hate speech" is also used far too easily against anyone who holds conservative views on issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion. It rarely seems to bother anyone when these people get dog's abuse because they're considered unworthy of respect or sympathy.

If we're serious about cutting down on harassment, then the people we don't agree with need to be protected just as much as those with more fashionable opinions.

Nonetheless, people on social media are still entitled to let off steam without automatically being accused of trolling. There's a danger that a resulting crackdown on unacceptable forms of communication could damage genuine free speech. The Electoral Commission has actually suggested that trolls should be banned from voting in elections. That's crazy.

What happened to Laura Kuenssberg, though, is a definite warning shot. The freedom to express disapproval of public figures does not include a right to make them fear for their personal safety.

Internet giants such as Facebook and Twitter should not be allowed to get away with washing their hands of responsibility for the monster they've helped to create. Other media outlets don't get off scot-free when their pages are misused for libellous or extremist content.

Strict laws govern what can and cannot be published. There's a reason trolls are drawn to social media. It's because those places make it easy for them to cross the line, and don't seem to care when they do. Reddit, the US discussion website, made a decision in 2015 to shut down forums where debate had become toxic. It led to a significant drop in verbal intimidation.

The trolls didn't vanish, they just went elsewhere, but it shows that harassment and cyberbullying are not inevitable. They can be stopped.

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