The Internet Safety Strategy launched a couple of years ago now, to tackle cyberbullying and make the UK the safest place in the world to be online amidst the growing international phenomenon of cyberbullying. It seems to have made little difference.
As part of this, the government has charged an independent Law Commission to review laws relating to internet abuse and offensive communications and see if they are sufficient. It is hoped that the review will be published within six months leading to parliamentary legislation thereafter.
Figures show that nearly a third of UK internet users were on the receiving end of some form of trolling, harassment, or cyberbullying in 2017. The Law Commission is charged to look at how this is currently being dealt with, how evidence is expected to be proven, and how this is defined and how these offenses overlap with other areas of the law.
Protests are already gathering steam, declaring that any interference is contrary to our freedom of speech. This is the standard defense of trolling, along with it being about “humor and mischief”.
I wonder how many of its victims would describe the activities as “mischievous? Women are soft targets. Gina Miller, who took out a ground-breaking case against the secretary of state over leaving the EU, was a target of racial and sexual violence and bullying of all types including cyberbullying.
I heard her speak at the First Women Summit a few years ago about the huge impact this had on her and describe herself as having been made to be “genuinely scared”. Cyberbullying was hitting the first heights of madness.
It was to culminate in her spending £60,000 on beefing up her security after Viscount Rhodri Philipps had put a bounty on her head, “£5,000 for the first person to ‘accidentally’ run over this bloody tiresome first-generation immigrant”. Philipps was jailed for 12 weeks for racist threats, and Gina Miller alleged that the media incites such sexual and racial violence. It always struck me as a tragedy that he could not, quite simply, be jailed for cyberbullying.
Carolyn Radford is CEO of Mansfield Town Football Club. Since she took on the role in her 20s, Radford has been subjected to trolling and abuse. Being young, attractive and a businesswoman CEO in football all seemed to be reasons to make her a prime target for abuse.
Radford told me of how shocked she was initially, having never experienced anything like that level of abuse before. A large majority of it was sexual, lewd, and pornographic in content. She was hounded with sexist abuse from the stands and on message boards, and abusers ignored her degree from Durham University or that fact she was a trained lawyer.
The abuse continues today. Mostly, Radford believes, it comes from other club’s’ fans. She says she is now able to distance herself from it, creating a barrier by reminding herself that these are people she doesn’t know and who do not know her.
The exception to this was when the abuse escalated, and she and her family received death threats by both post and social media. Radford took action and contacted the police.
Agreeing that something absolutely has to be done, Radford feels that while she has the emotional capacity to cope with it all now, that many people who suffer from it do not, and crumble under abuse.
Cyberbullying – what can be done
Radford’s experiences mirrored my own when working with the police, which is being hampered by a lack of co-operation from social media platforms.
Like Radford, when I was first attacked on social media when I was running my last business, I too was incredibly shocked and devastated by the injustice of it. My attackers also approached clients, causing damage to the company’s reputation.
There were even threats of violence, leading to the police becoming involved. I found it took a shockingly long time of leaving the material out in the public domain to enable the police to identify the main people behind it all.
Gina Miller has also spoken of the problematic stance social media platforms have in reporting cyberbullying and violence. In her case, Facebook would not give up the underlying data about the people posting abuse about her.
Tamara Littleton from social media strategists The Social Element Agency, speaks eloquently in her TEDX talk ‘Friend or Foe’, about her own experiences. Brought in many years ago to clean up a client’s out of control community web site, she found that instead both she and her company became the target of those causing the problems.
Wising up, and with admirable personal strength, she tells of how the moment came when she saw the perpetrators for the children they were and realized she was better than them. She was also able to give up that particular client, which made it easier to move gradually on. She uses her own experiences to advise others on the motivations for such attacks and how to cope with them. Brands can easily be irrevocably damaged without the right crisis management.
As cyber abuse grows fast and globally, the Law Commission has a huge job on its hands. They will undoubtedly be reviewing the terrible abuse that people are suffering, and see many who are not strong enough to cope. It will be a tall order for the Law Commission to take back control and they cannot do it alone. Surely, given their very active role in creating the monster, all the social media platforms have to put back some of their massive funds into creating far, far better ways of policing, creating and reporting.