ISLANDERS need to help stamp out toxic online abuse which is polluting political debate in Jersey, say States Members, amid reports that the problem has reached epidemic proportions in the UK.
One Deputy said that women, in particular, were being targeted and another revealed that she had contacted the police about online abuse she received during the election campaign.
A report showed this week that more than 3,000 offensive tweets were sent to UK politicians on a daily basis, sparking fears that the abuse was threatening to undermine democracy.
Although Members who spoke to the JEP said they thought that the problem was less troubling in Jersey, they said concern over social media here prevented some people from even standing for election and drove others from public life altogether.
Deputy Catherine Curtis, a member of Reform Jersey, said that she, and two other candidates, received abusive comments online which were reported to the police.
And last year, Deputy Inna Gardiner called for action to be taken against a mounting tide of social-media abuse after she shared a message in which she was told to ‘please die of Covid’ and called a ‘filthy NIMBY’.
At the same time, then-Senator Sam Mézec said he had received what he described as ‘overtly threatening online communications which spilled over into a menacing in-person contact’.
Meanwhile, former Infrastructure Minister Eddie Noel quit politics in 2018 and cited – in a JEP interview at the time – ‘personal and often anonymous attacks’ on social media as one of the main reasons for his decision.
Deputy Curtis said: ‘I don’t think I would have stood for election without being a member of a political party. Having support from fellow members, canvassing together, discussing policy and having emotional support was important. When problems arose we could tackle them together. One member of the public became very abusive online to three of us women. We discussed this and contacted the police, who approached the abusive man and the insulting behaviour ceased.’
Deputy Lucy Stephenson, who attended a Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians’ Conference in Gibraltar recently, said the issue was a barrier to women’s participation in politics.
She said: ’It has an impact on our role and our engagement with our constituents. I don’t feel it’s anywhere near as big a problem in Jersey as in England, but it is an issue here. Women candidates were targeted during the election campaign and social media is one of the major barriers to standing for election in Jersey.
‘We are scared and nervous to engage with this issue as a society, but everyone has a role to play to stop it. It doesn’t help democracy, it doesn’t help transparency and it cuts off some politicians and isolates them. It can have an impact on their work, their families and even on their health. In a small community where we all live and work together and our kids go to school together, I think it protects us a bit more, but if you see abuse happening online challenge it, report it and support the person who’s been targeted.’
The founder of the States’ Diversity Forum, Deputy Louise Doublet, agreed, saying. ‘We want the public to have their say and after eight years in the States Assembly I have a thick skin but I don’t think it should be accepted as part of the job of a politician. It takes time away from helping the people we represent and it’s certainly a negative thing if it puts off good, high-quality candidates from standing for election.
‘I think sometimes people have a negative view of politicians but the truth is I believe every member of the States Assembly is there because they want to help people and to make the Island a better place.
‘We are all human and we all have families who can be affected by this.’
The BBC report on the impact of negative social-media comments on UK MPs showed that 3,000 offensive tweets were sent to MPs every day.
Labour MP Jess Phillips described the current situation as an ‘unsustainable culture’ where politicians were afraid to speak out on important issues.
Deputy Carina Alves, chair of the Diversity Forum, said that fear of insulting social-media comments was an issue for politicians in Jersey, and said that the whole of society must work together to make it clear that it will not be tolerated.
She added: ‘These behaviours need to be challenged. Twitter is the most toxic platform on social media because you can hide behind it and say things you wouldn’t say in person. We can all have a difference of opinion, but unacceptable behaviour is unacceptable behaviour. We all know what is right and what is wrong. But what affects me the most is if colleagues and members of the public don’t stand up for you at the time.
‘It is hard enough to break through as a woman in public life and these comments can make you feel very vulnerable. I’m quite a resilient person but you shouldn’t have to be.
‘The solution is to empower people to speak up when they see something is wrong without being afraid.’