BY JAMIE FOSTER
Currently government proposals are being considered that would prevent online trolls who intimidate election candidates or campaigners from standing for public office. The length of a ban from standing for or holding public office will be part of a consultation. At present in extreme cases of intimidation there are jail sentences available for those who commit these offences.
It feels like this is merely an attempt at doing something to deal with cases of online intimidation, rather than finding a sentence that fits the crime. It is hard to imagine that many people who go online as trolls also harbour ambitions to hold public office, although some extreme cases have tried to get elected alongside their victims. It would seem more appropriate to find ways of limiting their internet usage which would likely hit them where they live rather than preventing them from doing something they never intended to do in the first place. Nonetheless it is easy to see how it could be felt that something needs to be done about online abuse.
The problem is that those campaigning to be elected want a discourse with the public. They are very keen to be listened to and have to claim to be listening in return. The minute the doors are opened on such a discourse the possibility of abuse arises. There are several reasons for this. Some internet users simply want to abuse people. Some trolls are trolls first and live to make other people’s lives unpleasant. The target doesn’t matter so much to these people, merely the availability. For others it is a dysfunctional way of entering the political discourse. They feel politically aroused and simply express themselves badly by over-the-top attacks on those perceived as political opponents. For yet more people it is an angry reaction to having their online space invaded by those seeking public office.
There is a fine line for those seeking public office to tread between being thick-skinned enough to put up with having online brick bats thrown at them and not having to put up with abuse. Genuine abuse includes death or rape threats amongst other things. A 2017 joint study between the University of Sheffield and Buzzfeed News found that male Conservative MPs received the highest amount of twitter abuse in the lead up to the election. This goes against the perception caused by those complaining about it that it mostly affects women.
We need to decide what sort of society we wish to live in. If we value free speech as we apparently do it is very difficult to police the abuse MPs and campaigners receive as it is an attempt to police the public discourse itself. If we want our brightest and best to be available for public office we need to take steps to protect them against a barrage of online abuse which might otherwise prevent them from standing. This leads back to the question of whether barring abusers from public office is an effective step in preventing abuse. It may be a reflection of how difficult it is to regulate the online sphere that this is the sort of step that is considered.
There is a real danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in this case. The number of cases that are likely to be covered by this new sentence are very small indeed. In the majority of cases the level of abuse is likely to be deemed too low to allow for action to be taken. What should not happen is people being put off expressing political views out of fear they will be caught up in this argument.
In the end there are already many things a court can do to deal with the small number of genuine abuse cases that come before them. Banning people from holding public office may be of interest to those campaigning to hold public office, who value the ability to hold public office. It may not be a particular disincentive to online trolls. On the other hand if the University of Sheffield study is to be followed, it may be that there are a number of Momentum trolls who would be affected by being banned from holding public office. If that is the case, then all well and good.