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Online bullying cannot go on being ignored by social media companies

"Why do we tolerate online publishers hosting defamatory comments but we wouldn’t tolerate the print or broadcast media hosting such?" | Adobe Stock

4 min read

For years I just accepted online abuse – but it escalated to a point where I realised I had to speak out and use my experience to help others. Parliament must act now

As children across the UK headed back to school over recent weeks, how many parents reassured their children with the old adage: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’

We say it but we all know, it simply isn’t true.

Since entering elected politics, I have had an almost daily tirade of personal abuse, with Facebook and Twitter offering faceless trolls a platform from which to throw the cyber equivalent of sticks and stones in my direction.

Public representatives, by the nature of the role, have tough skin. We shrug things off but to say that it doesn't sometimes hurt would be a lie. The passing of time has helped me to ignore the comments but now and again it cuts through.

Most of the time the abuse is about my appearance and being female. Like most people, I too have features I might change had I the opportunity to do so. 

But as you grow older, you realise it is not what you look like but who you are that is important. 

I am content in who I am. I grew up on a farm. My parents loved me unconditionally. I was taught to work hard, respect others and be generous to everyone. I hope I have carried these characteristics into political life.

But while I am a Member of Parliament, I am also a wife and a mother. I don’t want my husband to have to see the vile comments about me, or my son Charlie to read it when he gets a bit older. Inevitably our loved ones shut the door on social media and good people walk away from politics.

This is not just about me – it's about the female politicians in the next generation and the families of politicians in this generation

I am not alone in being a victim of such personal, vicious and sinister abuse. I know colleagues across the House, suffer the same tirade. Journalists and other public figures also face persistent attack. This is not about me – it's about the female politicians in the next generation and the families of politicians in this generation. This is about young people in our schools who are being driven to the edge of mental sanity because of anonymous bullying.

For years I just accepted the abuse and moved on. But all that changed one Friday night in April 2018. While attending a party function in rural County Fermanagh, my party leader Arlene Foster and I took a selfie which Arlene shared on social media. The abuse that ensued was on a scale never experienced before. The perpetrators were in the main, faceless trolls. The kind of people so persuaded by their convictions that they don't put their real identity to their profile. 

After sharing this selfie with DUP leader Arlene Foster (right), Lockhart’s abuse escalated to “a scale never experienced before”

However, that Friday night it was different. Two of the main culprits posted disparaging personal comments about me and did so from real profiles. They felt their vile and sick comments were an acceptable way to address another human being.

And it was that brazenness that made me speak out, and it is why I want Parliament to act to bring about change.

The social media platforms need to tackle this head on. Why do we tolerate online publishers hosting defamatory comments but we wouldn’t tolerate the print or broadcast media hosting such?

Many accounts are fake. One person can have multiple accounts to enable them to systematically abuse people. There must also be a better process to ensure the account holder has a verified identity. These global companies have to start taking responsibility for the horrible commentary hosted on their platforms. They can no longer close their eyes and wash their hands. It like saying the road builder has no responsibility to erect a crash barrier on a dangerous bend.

Social media is like the Wild West at its worst. It needs policed.

The impact that online bullying and trolling has on lives cannot go on being ignored.

Like the playground bully, unless confronted and dealt with it simply continues and the victim’s misery compounded.

In the coming months let us all prioritise this issue. It is no exaggeration to say it will save lives. And it will make society a better place for everyone.

Be kind? Yes, it trumps being nasty every time.


Carla Lockhart is DUP MP for Upper Bann

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