MP was right to call out Twitter troll - social media is here to stay

Will Quince - Cons cand for Colchester

Will Quince - Cons cand for Colchester - Credit: Archant

Least said, soonest mended. Rise above it, writes Annabelle Dickson, after an Essex MP spoke out about a vile online troll.

This is the approach many MPs took to early vitriol directed at them online, and in the early days of Twitter and Facebook.

For years many have shrugged their shoulders, accepting it as part and parcel of public life.

Block buttons allow them to stop certain individuals, others just skim over the insults.

I have had more than one MP say they do not want to kick up a fuss.

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They know that sympathy for politicians can be in short supply. It is better just to ignore it.

Rising to the bait can encourage the trolls and give them the oxygen of publicity, some thought.

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But in recent years MPs have started to speak out.

A Twitter troll who bombarded London MP Stella Creasy with messages calling her a witch and threatening her with rape was jailed in 2014.

Birmingham Yardly MP Jess Philips has also been unafraid to publicly highlight 'sexist bullying'.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott recently wrote about how depressing it was to find herself the target of horrific racist abuse all these years. She thought she had broken a glass ceiling when she entered parliament as a black woman.

This week Colchester MP Will Quince highlighted, and then reported to the police, sick comments directed at him on Twitter.

The Essex MP, whose son Robert was stillborn in 2014, had blogged about a Labour Party claim in the Copeland by-election that mothers and babies would die if the Conservatives won.

He wrote that he had been left 'angry and sad in equal measure' by a Labour leaflet distributed in the Cumbria seat referring to plans to close a maternity ward at the West Cumberland Hospital which stated: 'Midwives have said that if these changes go ahead 'Mothers will die. Babies will die. Babies will be brain damaged.'

After his blog was published a Twitter troll told him he was 'Glad his Tory baby is dead'.

The tweet was later deleted, but not before Mr Quince had named and shamed the individual and kicked up a fuss.

Many column inches have been devoted to that fine line between the law and our right to speak freely and offensively.

I have some sympathy with the critics of generation snowflake - the label given to student-aged people who their detractors say are too easily offended.

Why don't they follow that old adage that sticks and stones can break our bones but words can't hurt us that so many of us were taught?

That saying comes from a pre-social media era. Those who may say just switch it off fail to appreciate that it is not just in our personal lives that many feel they have to have a profile. It is often an inescapable part of some people's working lives too.

Networking and modern job opportunities can often come from the world wide web.

Like it or loathe it, many of us need to be on it for our careers, and that includes many MPs.

And with it comes that new phenomenon of trolling.

Social media has unleashed vile abuse in a way previous face-to-face meetings or phone conversations never promoted. While I'm sure anonymous hand-written notes of the past might have contained some nasty abuse, the need for a stamp and an address made it that bit more of an effort to deliver.

We can't turn back the clock. Today's young people need to communicate Facebook and Instagram. That is the reality of the modern world.

Which is why it is important that our policy makers do speak out and shine a light on unacceptable behaviour.

Political debate is an important part of our democracy. Mr Quince was perfectly entitled to describe Labour's campaign as scaremongering.

A reader of his blog was equally entitled to disagree with him and argue that Labour's leaflet was perfectly acceptable.

But there is no excuse for personal abuse and it is something that MPs and others need to point out. I have not doubt that while Will Quince was upset by the post, he is resilient. Teenagers sitting in their bedrooms may not be, If sticking his head above the parapet emboldens one teenager to speak out about vile abuse, it will be a good thing. We can't switch off social media. Legal or not what Will Quince's anonymous troll said was not acceptable. So in this case the more said the soonest mended. Our MPs are right not to tolerate behaviour which could be damaging for more vulnerable members of a social network.

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