Social media companies must do more to stop online abuse of MPs in the wake of recent attacks, a former digital minister has said.
Matt Warman, who until recently worked in the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has called for tech giants to make it harder for people to hide behind anonymous accounts and stir up hatred of politicians online.
It comes after a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life called on Twitter, Facebook and Google to take immediate action on online abuse in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder during the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
While the Government has drawn up plans to increase the legal liability of tech giants for the content on their platform, laid out in the upcoming Online Harms bill, Mr Warman said more action was needed on anonymous accounts that gave abusers confidence.
‘Faster action needed’
“Major platforms have to take faster action when councillors and MPs report the kind of behaviour that would be illegal in the real world, and that starts with accepting that anonymity provides cover for language that would never be used to anybody’s face,” he said.
Since leaving office last month, Mr Warman has met with Twitter and other companies to discuss how more steps could be taken to protect politicians online.
The Online Harms Bill has yet to pass through Parliament, and tech companies have not yet implemented many of the measures they will be required by law to introduce.
Although much of the legislation targets illegal activity that threatens the safety of children, firms will also be required to make it easier to report illegal content seen by adults.
Under the measures, Ofcom would enforce compliance, with the power to fine companies up to £18 million or 10 per cent of their annual global turnover, whichever is higher.
The upcoming Elections Bill will also introduce a new offence of intimidation of candidates at an election, which was also recommended in the 2017 Committee on Standards in Public Life report that followed Ms Cox’s murder.
Parliamentary staff exposed to ‘constant abuse and threats’
Mr Warman also said Parliament should do more to protect MPs' staff, who often ran their social media accounts and were exposed to constant abuse and death threats.
“Too many young staff in Parliament are deluged by the abuse and threats aimed at their bosses,” he said, calling for measures similar to those used by Facebook to protect content moderation staff.
He highlighted counselling services that were available to social media employees who watched violent content at work.
“Social media platforms increasingly provide extensive support for their own staff but aren’t doing enough to make it manageable for others,” he said.
“That means providing the tools to promote civility online but it also means taking quicker action on threatening material and addressing the problems posed by online anonymity.
“Parliament has made great strides since 2016, and working together with platforms themselves will see further progress. I’m keen to help make sure those conversations, helping all parties, happen as quickly as possible.”
On Friday, Jade Botterill, Yvette Cooper’s former office manager, said she had resigned because of the hundreds of death threats she read at work. “It was all just too much,” she said.
Despite the implementation of some recommendations in the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report, other suggestions have been ignored.
Warning that “it is clear that intimidatory behaviour has become a significant and damaging feature of public life,” the report called for Twitter and Facebook to publish data on the proportion of reported posts that were actually removed.
Both companies regularly publish the number of posts they remove or accounts they have taken action against, but do not compare it to the number of reports.
The latest data from Twitter shows a 132 per cent increase in the number of posts removed in the last half of 2020, compared to the previous six months.
Speaking at a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament earlier this year, Caroline Nokes, the chairman of the women and equalities select committee, said: “The reality is that none of us … know which one of our online trolls might turn into a stalker or who indeed might turn in due course into somebody who attends our office, our surgery, our home and threatens us physically.”
Carla Lockhart, a DUP MP, added that the internet contained “online lynch mobs controlled by dark forces who are unleashed on female public figures like a pack of lions”.
The Government said while the abuse of MPs online was “pernicious and distressing,” ministers were “absolutely committed” to making the internet a safer place.