WATCH: Christine Jardine on the “mindless, vindictive” online attacks she endured on day of her husband’s funeral

One of the most awful points of the General Election was seeing Christine Jardine coming under attack from a whole load of people online. They’d accused her of breaking the campaign pause in Edinburgh West. She had, in fact, been at her husband’s funeral. Even when they were told the situation, they kept going and kept throwing even more abuse. It was shameful.

This afternoon, in a debate on online abuse in the House of Commons, Christine spoke very powerfully about those experiences. Sure, politicians were going to be subject to disagreement and comment but nobody signs up for intimidation and abuse.

I thought that she made some really sensitive and intelligent comments about mental health, too. She outlined how social media could be a force for good for those who suffered from mental ill health and how it could really help with isolation. I actually know that from my own experience. Back in 2009, Twitter kept me going when I was laid low for months by Glandular Fever. That was in the early days when it was a lovely place to be. I actually made some friends on there who became friends in real life. But social media also has a potential to do much harm to mental health if people were subjected to abuse and bullying.

Last year I wrote of my own experience of online abuse and how it came pretty close to breaking my spirit.

Here is Christine’s speech in full. The text is below.

Mr Speaker sir thank you for calling me to speak in a debate which, for me, has such personal resonance.

During the most recent General Election I was one of those who discovered just how easily an on line platform can be used to spread hurtful or personally abusive lies.

My experience – which is far from the worst example – actually started with something I originally put down to a genuine mistake or misunderstanding…. Before quickly realising it was actually an attempt to gain political advantage with no respect whatsoever for the personal impact… or the truth.

During the break in campaigning as a mark of respect following the Manchester attack I was accused, on social media, by an activist from another party, of ignoring that and going out campaigning.

I had, in fact, been at my husbands funeral.

It was retweeted explanations demanded… abusive comments.

I was surprised, my husband’s death had been widely reported, not least by the newspaper for which he’d worked.

But, partly to avoid embarrassment for my accuser when he realised ..I replied and explained… from where the abuse didn’t stop but actually escalated…

That was when I realised that for many of those now ploughing in with their own comments all that mattered was the opportunity to make clever sarcastic comments, put someone else down or simply intimidate them to gain political advantage.

What they had was a forum where they could say what they liked with impunity.

Now as a politician I accept I put myself in the firing line. Criticism, political disagreement, the public spotlight are all part of the job…

But intimidation, abuse… often not of ourselves but of our family…

On a day when I was coping with my own and my family’s grief I had to put up with mindless, vindictive attacks, even after the circumstances were explained.

But the most important thing I took from that experience is the extent to which the current online free for all leaves those who are far more vulnerable than I open to the sort of mindless bullying that can have devastating consequences.

Mental health charities tell us social media is often the only contact some people have with the outside world.

That for someone coping with depression an online communication is the only relief from solitude.
In an isolated existence it is a sanctuary from an outside world they may not feel they have the strength to enter.

Somewhere they can express themselves and feel comfortable doing so… find acceptance and understanding for what they are going through…somewhere they can begin to heal.

Those of us who have experience of mental health issues whether ourselves or someone we love, know just how all consuming, life changing and exhausting it is…

Now imagine that lifeline turns into a tormentor….

Throw online abuse into the mix of suffering

Replace comfort with the perpetual fear of what fresh abuse your phone or computer screen could bring…

The potential consequences are why it is time those of us in this house with the support network and the strength to resist that intimidation do something to protect those who do not.

It is time we acted. Time we created legislation which does not restrict freedom of speech but does destroy the ability to abuse.

We need some way of telling those abusers that they cannot exploit social media to indulge their own viciousness either anonymously or with impunity.

We need a framework – as we have for every other media – which insists on respectful, non-abusive and non-defamatory publication.

It’s time to take responsibility.

 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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7 Comments

  • That is so awful. I wasn’t aware that Christine had lost her husband during the campaign, and I am sitting here in tears reading her story.

    I would not want to argue for heavy-handed regulation of online spaces – web freedom is very precious and should not be undermined. But I would want to argue that online abuse should be recognised in law as something akin to physical assault in real life. After all, its impact in terms of mental health can be as damaging as the impact of a battering on physical health. That would pass the responsibility for action over to the police, rather than web providers.

  • Achieving some form of regulation while protecting free speech will be difficult, but not impossible. There would need to be some sort of requirement for providers like Twitter to hand over the sign-up information as part of an investigation, but it’s so easy to set up an account using an email that’s not linked to you directly (as many of the online abusers do) that this may not actually work. I would, though, particularly like to see action taken against abusers who are known – I have seen comments and abuse online directed at politicians from all parties by activists of all parties. I can’t help but think that action taken against publicly known figures might have some effect (and perhaps punishment should include the prevention of internet access, as happens with child abuse cases, and/or being banned from holding public office for a period of time.)

  • clive english 15th Sep '17 - 8:04am

    what is depressing is how few male MPs took any interest in the matter. But then many Male MPs believe its legitimate to abuse their Female colleagues, so it probably should not be a surprise.

  • A very moving and dignified speech which must have taken a great deal of courage to deliver. One’s heart aches for Christine.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Sep '17 - 10:21am

    A parliamentary candidate I knew had received death threats on his answerphone, (before the days of social media.)
    I assumed that the perpetrators would not be leaving identity details.
    He said “Oh yes, they do”.
    The murder of Jo Cox MP was a reality check.

  • Stephen Booth 15th Sep '17 - 11:14am

    We have to face up to the fact that ISPs, Facebook and the others are publishers. We have lamely followed a rulling nearly 20 years ago in a Californian court that ISPs are not publishers. Most newspapers are supported by advertising, some exclusively like the Metro, Evening Standard, etc. But they are still governed by law on what they can publish. It is for the ISPs and their clients to find a way to stop this at whatever cost. Maybe one way is to enforce a very modest annual subscription along with capturing users’ addresses.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Sep '17 - 1:37pm

    “Time we created legislation which does not restrict freedom of speech but does destroy the ability to abuse.”

    Just a logical impossibility, I’m afraid – unless you redefine “freedom of speech” to mean only freedom to say things that aren’t illegal, but of course that’s a simple tautology and no real use as a principle.

    We *do* restrict freedom of speech – every society does in one way or another. That’s okay; we just have to be very careful about how we do it. Is it helpful to have a pious attachment to “freedom of speech” as an absolute but then redefine it when we think necessary so that it doesn’t quite mean what it says? I’m not sure that it is.

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