The online ‘abuse’ panic is a threat to free speech

Abuse of politicians is being perpetrated by Conservative Party supporters on an ‘industrial scale’, according to some Labour Party members. On the other hand, some Tories claim that those on the Corbynite ‘hard left’ are the real online abusers. Given the bluster and outrage on both sides, you could be forgiven for thinking that MPs feared for their lives. In reality, ‘abuse’ means little more than activists and Twitter trolls saying mean things about politicians on the internet.

Labour blames the Tories’ ‘highly personalised and nasty’ social-media attack ads for the insults their candidates and MPs are subjected to. While Conservative MP Simon Hart, who is holding a debate in the Commons on this issue, believes that the members of the pro-Corbyn grassroots organisation Momentum are responsible for the majority of rude messages sent to MPs, doling it out to ‘Tory scum’ and ‘Blairite traitors’ in equal measure.

But while Labourites and Tories trade insults over whose supporters are more likely to tweet insults, they are in agreement that Something Must Be Done. ‘Abuse against candidates on social media is completely unacceptable’, says Labour chairman Ian Lavery and Labour MP Cat Smith. Hart says that ‘anybody who uses these means to try to promote the interests of Labour or the Conservatives ought to feel the full force of the regulation upon them’. Ministers have called for prosecutions, and even the bolstering of existing laws, to tackle the supposed ‘abuse’ epidemic.

Personal insults aren’t big or clever. But it takes a certain brass neck for politicians, who just one month ago were staking their claim to represent the public, to seek to silence their more combative constituents and demand the internet be cleansed of vile tweeters. Some insults are more outrageous than others, some jibes more witty, some targets of ridicule more justifiable. But this attempt to label everything as abusive, from implied death threats to being called a ‘melt’ on Twitter, must be seen for what it is: an attack on free speech. It is essential for any democracy that the public be free to hold politicians accountable for their actions and views, even if some choose to express themselves using unsavoury language.

Thin-skinned MPs crowing over which party is the nastiest is an embarrassing spectacle. It isn’t online abuse that threatens democracy, but the censorious reaction to it.

Fraser Myers is a producer at WORLDbytes.

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