- Theresa May says new laws are needed to outlaw the online abuse and bullying of politicians and other public figures.
- The prime minister says the bullying of politicians online has become a growing “threat to democracy” which must be tackled.
- MPs from all parties have reported receiving death and rape threats online.
- New official review will examine which new laws are required to stop online abuse.
LONDON – Theresa May today called for a new legal crackdown on the abuse of politicians and other public figures on social media, saying that online “bullying” has now become a growing “threat to democracy.”
The prime minister said that social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, had “become places of intimidation and abuse” for public figures and said that new laws were now needed to make sure “what is illegal offline is illegal online.”
In a major speech to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, May said the Law Commission would look at which new laws were needed to crack down on “offensive online communications”.
Speaking in central Manchester on Tuesday afternoon, May said that a new “tone of bitterness and aggression has entered into our public debate,” due to the rise of social media.
She said the government would also consult on making the online intimidation of political candidates a criminal offence.
The government will also look at the “legal liability” of social media companies for abuse that takes place on their platforms.
The prime minister said public figures “from candidates and elected representatives to campaigners, journalists and commentators” now “have to contend with regular and sustained abuse” online.
She said she believed abusive behaviour was now a real “threat to our democracy” which must be tackled by both the government, technology firms and the media.
MPs from across the House of Parliament have spoken out recently about a surge in online abuse and intimidation in recent years, with female politicians, in particular, subjected to repeated rape and death threats while online.
The prime minister said that public figures who were female and from ethnic minorities had been most targeted both “in terms of scale and vitriol.”
In order to deal with the problem, May said the government will now publish a new social media code of practice later this year which will set out new rules for social media platforms as well as a new annual “transparency report” which will “track companies’ progress in stamping out online abuse.”
The prime minister said that failure to tackle the problem would “squander the opportunity new technology affords us to drive up political engagement, [and] have the perverse effect of putting off participation from those who are not prepared to tolerate the levels of abuse which exist.”
A spokesperson for the PM would not be drawn on which new laws the prime minister would like to bring in however, telling Business Insider that they would await the findings of the Law Commission report.
Reacting to the speech, Labour today warned against any attempt to restrict free speech.
“Real democracy is about opening up debate and decision making to all,” the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said.
“Closing down that space, whether it comes from government, the media or online trolls is anti-democratic. The Tories should end their personalised attacks, curb the abuses from sections of the media and impose effective sanctions on social media giants which allow abuse.”
May’s speech followed a meeting of her Cabinet on Tuesday morning. A spokesperson for the prime minister said that a large number of members of the prime minister’s top team had spoken out about the “need to do more to tackle online bullying” and abuse.
This is the second time in recent weeks that May has singled out technology firms for failing to do enough to protect the public from abuse and online extremism.
In a speech last month, the prime minister accused social media firms of giving a platform to terrorists, slave traders and paedophiles.
She told the World Economic Forum in Davos that new forms of technology were being exploited by people with “malevolent intentions,” and called on technology firms to stop their platforms becoming the “first choice for paedophiles” and terrorists.
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