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Lucy Powell: We must act now on online hate and abuse – before it's too late

Elizabeth Bates

7 min read

Hidden social media groups are acting as echo chambers for hate and threats of violence, Labour MP Lucy Powell fears. She tells Elizabeth Bates why MPs must take action and back her Online Forums Bill 

Getting Jacob Rees-Mogg to back her bill could prove too tough of a challenge for Theresa May, but not for Labour’s Lucy Powell.

The Manchester Central MP has won a diverse spread of cross-party support for a fresh effort to tackle the proliferation of hate speech, fake news and radicalisation online. Her focus is on hidden social media groups, which are inaccessible to everyone but their members and can become dangerous echo chambers of misinformation, aggression and discrimination.

The Online Forums Bill, she explains, would remove the anonymity of moderators, making them responsible for any hate speech or defamation which occurs under their watch. The legislation would also force platforms to publish information about secret groups.

“The last time there was a piece of legislation in this space was in 2003, before Facebook even existed,” she says. “As politicians perhaps, we are at the frontline of it a lot more than others, but I have been alarmed over the past couple of years about the rise in online hate and abuse and fake news.

“I think now we are really starting to see that move offline as well and it’s really having quite a detrimental impact on society, on politics, on democracy and on social cohesion.

 “So my Bill is an attempt to address one aspect of that, not the whole picture, but one aspect which is the responsibility of those who set up and run online forums, the power that they wield and that they seem to have no accountability.”

The legislation is set for its second reading on Friday 23 November and has already received a warm reception, particularly among parliamentarians that have been on the sharp end of escalating social media abuse. David Lammy, Anna Soubry, Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips are among those who are giving it their support. Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson also backs the moves.

“It was a very easy ask when I approached people,” Powell says, “because politicians are seeing some of the worst aspects of this… people found the 2017 general election quite a gruelling experience from that point of view.”

Rees-Mogg is also one of the MPs backing the plan. The high-profile Brexiteer has long been a target for online trolls, but the vitriol against him has increasingly moved offline over the past year, leading to a series of confrontations between him and angry protestors.

One such incident took place in February at the University of the West of England, when a group of masked men disrupted an event at which he was due to speak, culminating in punches being thrown. At the time it prompted a bit of light news coverage and was dismissed by the North East Somerset MP as “a little bit of shouting”. But a subsequent look at the social media activity of one those involved reveals a more sinister side to the incident.

As we discuss the confrontation, Powell lays out screengrabs of exchanges in a Facebook group entitled ‘We Support Jeremy Corbyn’, which one of the students at the heart of the incident joined in May last year.

The contents are a disturbing whirlwind of assassination plots and conspiracy theories. They document a barrage of incitements to violence against mostly Tory politicians in which Rees-Mogg features regularly. One post shows a picture of a guillotine alongside the message: “Remember what often happens to arrogant out of touch elites who push ordinary people too far?” A constant stream of messages from users reveal their desires to “punch”, “shoot” and “murder” Conservative politicians. One writes: “Kill Tories: Save Lives”. When talk turns to assassination attempts, another user points out: “The Lords bar has a terrace leading onto the Thames but may only be accessed by peers – worth knowing for any would be assassin.” The student was evidently an active member of the group, stepping in to exchanges to defend Corbyn and warning others against trusting the police, who he describes as the “enemy of the people”.

After the University altercation with Rees-Mogg, the group descends into a mire of conspiracy theories about the media coverage and hails those who took part as legitimate protestors, validating his action.

To Powell, the link between the violent online rhetoric and the real-life attack is clear. “Here you’ve got this guy – this is what he is seeing and lots of other people are encouraging that group-think and a couple of weeks later he rocks up and tries to attack him. So, you can see those patterns time and again.” 

For the Manchester MP the origins of the legislation go back further than this however, as she recalls her concerns about the role of social media in the Manchester Arena terror attack that stunned the city in May last year.

“Some of my early thoughts about this bill came from that experience because the police in Manchester – and I know this has been replicated in other incidents as well – felt very frustrated about what they could get access to in terms of some of the conversations and things that preceded that dreadful attack,” she explains.

“One of the things my bill has called for is a banning of secret groups, which I know the police have found a very frustrating aspect – that you can’t even know about a group that exists on Facebook, even if it’s got tens of thousands of people in it. It’s not even searchable.

“No one knows, unless you happen to be a member of it you wouldn’t even know it exists and I don’t think that can be right. I am not saying we should publish the names of everybody who is in these groups, but we should at least know that they exist and what size and scale they are, and I think the police would really welcome that.”

Looking further afield, Powell cites the recent US terror attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, which investigators found was fuelled by online hate-speech, as warning to UK legislators to act. Asked if she believes we could begin to see incidents of this scale on British soil, she replies: “Yes, I do.”

“The phenomenon that is happening around the world of polarisation, of division, the spreading of fake news and fake stories – it is happening everywhere.

“But countries can’t wait for an international response to that. I think we have to show leadership and Britain should be the sort of place that should show leadership on this, because we are a more sophisticated democracy, we are an older democracy and we understand better maybe than some other countries about the need to tackle some of these issues head on.”

The legislation would also cover a vast range of other worrying online trends that can have disturbing real-life consequences, from health groups that promote false autism cures to far-right extremist organisations to groups that encourage revenge porn.

The advantage of the bill, Powell says, is that it cuts out the social media giants and creates an instant layer of transparency and accountability, which she believes can complement other government initiatives in this area. And her work has not gone unnoticed in Whitehall, with Digital Minister Margot James looking to include some aspects of the work in an upcoming white paper on social media regulation and internet safety.

Powell says: “I have been contacted by Margot James since the publication of my bill, because as a government minister she is looking at producing a white paper later this year or early next year and she is keen to have a discussion with me and others about that, so we will be part of that.

“There is a real growing tide.”

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