Portsmouth councillors tell of death and rape threats as part of 'mountain of abuse'
DEATH and rape threats are among 'a mountain of abuse' directed at elected representatives, Portsmouth city councillors have said.
Among the examples shared were their children being spat at over false allegations and several councillors who have had to make police reports due to the seriousness of incidents.
Councillor Hannah Hockaday has led calls for a cross-party working group to be set up in the city 'to promote positivity' and hold social media companies to account.
'I find it beyond upsetting and disgraceful that some individuals can seemingly say what they want without any repercussions,' she said. 'Sometimes I have to stop myself reading comments online because I'm so angry and upset about it.'
She said councillors were well-placed to to 'raise awareness' of online abuse while also having the influence to lobby for legislation to clamp down on it.
'I fully support freedom of speech, but at what point should it should it be questioned?' she added.
Earlier this year the draft Online Safety Bill was published which would give greater powers to Ofcom to regulate 'certain internet services'.
The government said this would force social media companies to take action to tackle online abuse.
Councillor Jo Hooper, who represents Paulsgrove, said the issue was a 'whole world problem' but added that politics in Portsmouth has 'a particularly grubby doorstep'.
She said someone had threatened to throw eggs at her while campaigning in her ward and said female councillors were particularly targeted.
'As someone who came into politics to try and do a good job, I am absolutely disgusted at some of the abuse we have had to put up with in the north of Portsmouth,' she said.
'On a regular basis I, Councillor [Gemma] New and MP Penny Mordaunt have had some vile comments,' she added. 'We are referred to as goons, and the nasty 'slags' word by people that you could only call extremist political followers.'
She said this abuse was not reserved to anonymous social media accounts and that 'it is happening within this city'.
In response to similar issues reported within local politics across the country, the Local Government Association began working on its 'Civility in public life' report in 2019.
It said abuse was 'one of the most pressing concerns facing those in public office' and alongside risking the safety of elected officials, it 'undermined' local democracy and put off prospective candidates from standing in elections.
Efforts to tackle the problem have resurfaced in recent days following the killing of MP Sir David Amess. The speaker of the House of Commons called for 'kinder' politics.
This has been echoed by councillor Dave Ashmore, a member of the council's cabinet who said councillors were open to 'constructive criticism' but said much of this had become 'out and out bullying'.
'We want to keep on top of it, to keep showing people that we won't stand for it and we also know that it's something the current police commissioner and the previous incumbent in that role have really focused on,' he said.
Social media companies have introduced a mixture of human and machine-based post filtering in a bid to detect posts that violate their rules.
Last week, Facebook's vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen said the prevalence of hate speech on its platform had almost halved in the last year.
But councillor Rob New, who works with Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt, said they needed to do more.
'One of the things that I've always found really weird is how closed - like little fortresses - big tech companies are,' he said. 'It strikes me as strange that they act like this because with Donald Trump's election campaign, they certainly found the ability to fact check him and stop him at every point.
'It's not rocket science. They do have the ability to flag words and phrases and AI is so advanced now, but it seems to me that there are a lot of people in California getting very rich, and they're doing very, very little.'
But other councillors have also hit out at the media for perpetuating the issue.
Councillor Terry Norton said: 'I'm embarrassed by the way our press often acts, they're not innocent in this type of inciting behaviour and in fact, I think they often go around trying to destroy people's lives.'
He said some reporting was 'fuelling' online abuse and cyberbullying.
This was echoed by councillor Claire Udy who said the media was 'as guilty' as social media companies.
However, she said councillors, including herself, were 'not free of sin'.
'I would say 90 per cent of us are guilty of being nasty to one another online at some point and a lot of us have certainly repented,' she said.
Last year Cllr Udy was forced to call the police in response to Facebook posts and a petition ‘calling for her head’ for sharing a photo of the vandalised statue of Winston Churchill.
She said photos of her home had also been shared online.
Simon Bosher, the leader of the council's Conservative group and who has been a councillor for almost 20 years, said there was a link between the increasing prominence of social media and rising levels of abuse against elected representatives.
'Part of what's highlighted this to me is the council website,' he said. 'When I was first elected, every single councillor had our home addresses and telephone numbers published. That was the way it was done.
'If you were to go and look at that now, you will probably find there's maybe seven or eight [of us] that still do have our home addresses on there. The majority of them are hidden now and I totally understand it.'
He said he had to make a police report when his daughter was spat at after false allegations of corruption were made against him.
'We can't necessarily control what some of the trolls and the cowards who hide social media do but we can temper our own behaviour,' he said.
At this month's full meeting of Portsmouth City Council, Cllr Hockaday put forward a motion calling on the government to consider granting greater legislative powers to tackle online abuse. It was approved unanimously.