Skip to main content

In this period of exponential digital evolution we are living through, we are both the architects and beneficiaries of progress. Technology has undeniably, if not universally, benefitted the world: overall we are better educated, healthier, live longer, have unprecedented access to knowledge, travel further, and feel more connected.

Yet with progress comes pain, for we are also victims of technology. While we reap the rewards, we suffer increasingly in a complex ecosystem of online harms, mass data abuses, and the dissemination of misinformation. Legislation has failed to keep up with these impacts – impacts that, at their most negative, have the potential to damage individuals, organisations, and entire societies and social structures beyond current recognition.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, in his 2019 Dimbleby Lecture, spoke of what we all know to be the “ghastly” nature of content available online, and confirmed what many of us now acknowledge: that artificial intelligence is no match for our peculiarly human ability to harm each other in the most toxic ways.

The end of the last decade was marred by increasing levels of abuse and intimidation against people in public life in the UK. It has become clear that online harms affect not just individuals, but our national security, our shared rights and responsibilities, opportunities to foster integration, and access to political participation. Yet it is the cumulative impact of these factors on our democracy that is the most disturbing of all.

Much recent research by various academic bodies and organisations shows that the abuse of public figures, particularly politicians, is increasing. The majority of this abuse occurs online. The University of Sheffield, for example, analysed more than one million tweets between elections in 2015 and 2017 and found that the number of abusive tweets about politicians more than doubled.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s Intimidation in Public Life review remains one of the most compelling documents, compiling the results of eleven quantitative submissions and the anecdotal evidence of dozens of MPs. Maria Caulfield MP is quoted in the review: “I now have video entry to my constituency office. I have panic alarms. I only post on social media after I have attended events. I no longer hold open surgeries.”

Abuse is no longer confined to electoral periods. MPs have warned for years that the levels of abuse they were receiving were out of control, with female MPs disproportionately targeted. Perhaps most illustrative of the trend was the number of MPs – particularly female MPs – who cited abuse and intimidation as a direct factor in their decision not to stand again in the December 2019 election. Fear of abuse is changing the way we, especially women, campaign. Female activists now openly speak of operating in an environment where they legitimately fear for their physical safety.

Just as we can no longer consider the cumulative impact of individual cases of abuse and intimidation in isolation, so too must we stop suggesting that the online space is a self-contained landscape. The online space is the public space. It is the space in which we work, learn, play, interact and, increasingly, govern. If the public space becomes so toxic that it not only deters whole future pipelines of public servants, but turns voters off politics even more, we are looking at a political culture that lacks vibrancy, diversity and innovation. We will all suffer as a result.

Correlation does not imply causation, but the links between online and offline harms cannot be denied. The sheer volume of abuse online, and the increasingly normalised language and tone, has legitimised violent behaviour in real life, with potentially calamitous effects. We know this only too well through the tragedy of the murder of Jo Cox MP and the recent prevention of the plot to kill Rosie Cooper MP. Stoking grievances and prejudice through inflammatory language perpetuates a wider atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

The long-term impacts on our politics will continue to play out. But we can, and must, intervene now. Across Whitehall, within the machinery of Westminster, and among the institutions and layers of national and local government, there is a contagious desire to tackle this issue. In July 2019 Government announced the Cabinet Office-led Defending Democracy programme of work, designed to protect and secure democratic processes; strengthen election integrity; encourage respect for free, fair and safe democratic participation; and promote fact-based and open discourse, including online.

Government also committed in 2019 to publishing a consultation on electoral integrity, including looking at measures to improve voters’ confidence in our democracy. The publication of the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019 was a major milestone in the road to a regulatory framework online. Legislative change around electoral law is improving the safety of candidates.

However, it will only be through a collaborative and concerted multi-sector effort that we can stem the tide of abuse and intimidation, and strengthen the future of our precious democracy. As Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden said in a written statement in November 2019, “Left unchecked, abuse and intimidation will change our democracy and mean that the way Members interact with constituents will need to change. Increasing levels of threats directed at those in public life is a worrying trend that will require a coordinated and thorough response from government, the relevant authorities, businesses and the public themselves.”

Government is stepping up; the private sector, and civil society, must too. One vital step will be behaviour change, and the empowering of active bystanders. Society must be enabled to call out abusive behaviour wherever and whenever we find it – and to understand the clearly detrimental impacts. Westminster must lead by example, but holistic societal change will be required to shift perceptions around behaviours that have become common in a frighteningly short timeframe. For that, government, social media companies, and each and every one of us has a duty to act. The wholesale rejection of an abusive culture in our public life must be our end goal. Only when this happens can our democracy flourish again.

Catherine Anderson is the CEO of the Jo Cox Foundation. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Digital disruption?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Today Testing]