A report handed down by the Independent Committee on Standards in Public Life which advises the Prime Minister on ethics has recommended a new electoral offence of intimidating parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election, and making social media platforms such as such as Facebook and Google liable for content they publish which breaches UK electoral law.
The committee claimed that a crackdown on social media abuse was warranted, committee chair Lord Bew stated “This level of vile and threatening behaviour, albeit by a minority of people, against those standing for public office is unacceptable in a healthy democracy.
Bew claimed this was not a crackdown on free speech, or that politicians were demonstrating that they were unable to cope with public scrutiny “This is not about protecting elites or stifling debate, it is about ensuring we have a vigorous democracy in which participants engage in a responsible way which recognises others’ rights to participate and to hold different points of view”.
The committee also argued its recommendations would strengthen its representative democracy as it would encourage more people to run for office if social media was safe, they particularly were concerned about the effect social abuse might have on the number of female, black, ethnic and LGBT candidates.
Of course nobody would argue that a lot of what is posted on social media about politicians is often extreme and very personal. But making it illegal by using the vague term intimidate would have not just have a chilling effect of free speech but see many people who post reasonable critiques of politicians and satirical jokes and memes hurled before court by a political candidate who may be offended.
One might also argue that if social media abuse has the effect of discouraging people from running for office that is a good thing, as you want politicians and leaders who are mentally strength and resilient. After all, if you can’t handle some mean words on social media, how on earth are going to handle standing up to third world dictators?
The adoption of the recommendations of this committee would further erode the level of free speech in the UK. Prime Minister Theresa May also recently reaffirmed her commitment to crackdown on the activities of the so-called far-right. It would also increase the levels of censorship already practiced by social media giants like Facebook and Google.
Politicians and candidates should simply toughen up, part of the democratic process is dealing with the public, who often have a few terse words to say to you. They certainly do not need nor deserve to be protected from their own voters.