Councillor abuse on social media – what can we do about it?

Social media is the expression of all of us. Collectively and individually. Even if people don’t participate in it, its impacts cannot be ignored.

Social media is all of us on the internet, on phones, laptops, smart speakers and an ever growing number of devices. It is almost as everyday as conversation.

Except social media is not like conversation. Any abuse in conversation is usually sporadic. On social media it can be relentless. This commentary comes from someone who has engaged with online communication since the late 1980s. I get abuse as a councillor but not as much as some others. The deputy leader of my council has just resigned citing online abuse.

The question for all of us in public life is how we cope with the flack and the abuse. And can we limit it?

The starting point for this article is a Shropshire Council meeting last Thursday. During the meeting, councillors in the cabinet referred to the pressures of social media We weren’t aware of the context until it was announced that the council’s deputy leader had resigned for health reasons. He later said in an interview for BBC Radio Shropshire that social media abuse was a major factor in his resignation.

“It’s a pretty toxic environment at the moment… Some of the comments that have been made are just vile and they don’t deserve any attention. But over twelve years I have had death threats, I’ve had letter chains of abuse. But today’s environment seems a bit different so I’ve come off social media. I am sick to the teeth with it to be fair…

Asked by reporter Joanne Gallagher whether abuse from the public had got worse over the years, the newly resigned deputy leader replied:

“Definitely. The breed of councillors who have come in are more vociferous… I don’t know if Covid has changed people. I can’t put my finger on it. But people just like to abuse you on the screen and say things they would never say in public to you… I want to step away from at the moment and do what I was elected to do. Not to defend myself from faceless idiots.”

Commenting on the resignation, the council leader said:

“I do have a presence of Facebook. I do have a presence on Twitter. But I don’t respond to anything these days because the abuse that comes back is horrendous… I want to get more people into local government, not lose them. The way they are being treated on social media, why would you want to do it?… One of things I wanted to do with my leadership is to encourage more women into politics by why would [they want that]. We women get the most horrendous comments. That’s got to stop. What really annoys me is that is faceless as well. It’s not people using their real names.”

We must accept that as councillors we are in public roles and challenge is a normal part of our daily work. We can’t hide from criticism, whether we feel it is deserved or not. But there is no excuse for the abuse councillors have received.

Social media pressure affects different people in different ways and councillors react in different ways. I have been tough on online abuse since the late 1980s when a near riot broke out on the Open University’s internal conference system after a young idiot started to debate how much rope it would take to hang a homosexual. I doubt he will ever forget my dressing down but it did allow me to introduce a code of conduct that outlawed abuse.

Those were different days. There is no excuse for not knowing the limits now. There is no excuse for being polite during the day and boiling with foul thoughts and abusive messages at night. I have blocked a lot of local people on Facebook and Twitter but abuse spills over into the offline world. I’ve had a man, who is blocked on all my platforms, rush up to me in the high street and spit “You are an [effing] hypocrite”. That might be true but it needs to be debated in a civilised manner. At one point I felt the need to install a security camera at home as abuse grew.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Social media has been part of my life from long before it was called that. It is central to my work as a councillor and I wouldn’t want to be without it even though some days I feel I can barely live with it.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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11 Comments

  • Don’t respond directly to the perpetrator is the golden rule. In my case the abuse came in 2017-18, the year between stepping down as Lord Mayor and being up for re-election. It was deliberately aimed at scuppering the latter and delivering votes for an independent, formerly Conservative, candidate. Teamwork was vital. My colleagues monitored the Facebook horrors, which included pseudo-religious cartoons, meant to demonstrate my hypocrisy. So long as some people are looking out for the attacks Facebook is not compulsory. Carrying on doing what we do best in the ward, sleeping pills from the GP and repeating to myself every other day “this can only be sorted at the ballot box” got me through – ultimately with a modest increase in my majority. The Independent and his Facebook praetorian guard were crushed and silenced. I appreciate that it will be different if the attacks come at a different stage of the electoral cycle but that’s how we coped.

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Sep '21 - 2:26pm

    @Geoff Reid
    “So long as some people are looking out for the attacks Facebook is not compulsory.”

    Is it ever compulsory?

  • John Marriott 26th Sep '21 - 3:53pm

    There’s a simple solution to this dilemma. Don’t do social media!!

  • Jason Connor 26th Sep '21 - 9:18pm

    Exactly don’t use it. Come off it and stick to other forms of media, sports people do when they get abuse. It’s all unacceptable but we need laws to deal this online abuse or psychological bullying as I would call it. These social media platforms don’t do enough so the abusers and trolls get away with it. If there were tough laws that their feeds would be closed down if abuse were to continue, maybe that would help put an end to it. The owners know who these people are and can easily ban them.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 26th Sep '21 - 9:30pm

    @ John M and Jason,

    Ah, the easy solution, albeit one that makes it rather harder to get re-elected.

    I’m a Parish councillor, and use social media to convey urgent messages that affect my constituents NOW. That is because I want to support them and offer them opportunities that they might not otherwise get to hear of. It can’t wait for the next leaflet.

    Luckily, because it’s a small parish, I know everyone and thus the level of grief I’m likely to attract is low. But there are some truly vile people who hide behind their computer screens to determinedly distress their victims. And, if like me, your aim is to serve the community, if you get enough abuse, you’ll eventually wonder if it’s worth it.

    The inevitable outcome is that the survivors are those with the hide of a rhinoceros and those who are simply in it for whatever power they can wield, not giving a fig for those in their patch.

    Mind you, I’m prone to blocking e-mail from people who are obnoxious, reporting the wilfully unpleasant for breach of site rules and cutting them adrift from my feeds. As I don’t need their votes, and they have more to lose than I do generally, I’m relaxed about that. Many politicians don’t have that luxury.

  • John Marriott 26th Sep '21 - 9:59pm

    @ Mark Valladares,

    When I was getting re elected there was no social media. I relied on FOCUS leaflets like so many Lib Dem councillors. What’s wrong with emails? I suppose they could be classed as ‘social media’, although, for me, that means Facebook, Twitter or something similar.

  • Many politicians don’t set a good example for the public to follow, as evidenced by the childish outburst from the deputy leader of the Labour Party last night and the wearing of expletive laden T-shirts denigrating people’s Referendum vote. When people are insulted some are likely to reciprocate.

  • Andy Boddington 27th Sep '21 - 3:55am

    It is early in the morning. I am clearing down urgent enquiries and casework. It has all come by social media. Younger people have greater confidence contacting councillors using social media, especially messenger. But it is not just young people. One message is from someone in their late eighties.

    I need to get a newsletter out by mid-morning to ensure weekend media coverage and brief people on breaking news.

    If I use Focus, it is unlikely I could get anything through doors until the weekend or next week. That would be out of date and stories are breaking daily. Social media is the way I communicate, even during elections. I got re-elected on social media last May, or rather because I have built up a high social media presence since I was first elected in 2013.

    We need to recognise that the world has changed. People read paper less and their mobile phones more. I was talking to a new cohort of media studies students from a nearby university. I asked how many bought a local newspaper. No hands went up from the 20 or so present. I asked how many bought a national daily. A couple of hands went up. Then, how many read news on this holding up my phone. You know the answer they gave.

    If we want to get votes in the future, we need to be where the future is. Where younger people are. Working in the way they work. That means that dropping social media is not an option.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Sep '21 - 8:04am

    Andy – I (not a social media user) went to look at your twitter and facebook pages and found I was required to log in – not having an account with either I couldn’t so I’ve no idea if people post offensive stuff there. My perception is that you are probably clued up and careful about social media use. Maybe more clued-up and careful than many other councillors…?

    But you are white and male. Do you ever ask your female councillor colleagues on Shropshire Council and Ludlow TC how well or badly they get on – how much abuse they get – using social media?

    I did perceive your comments about social media and young people as complacent about the mental damage social media seems in general to be doing to them. Aren’t you being complicit in helping unscrupulous owners of these social media platforms make pots of money via use of their ‘services’ by people who use the platforms to abuse other human beings?

  • Andy Boddington 27th Sep '21 - 9:31am

    @Nonconformistradical If you are not on social media, it must be hard to understand what happens on social media. It is unhelpful to suggest that someone who is white and male (and past ‘retirement age’ by the way) doesn’t understand the abuse suffered by others with different demographic characteristics. After decades in online communication, I understand it all too well. Did I ask fellow councillors? Why do you think I wrote the article based on the experiences of a right wing Tory?

    I am outraged at your comment “I did perceive your comments about social media and young people as complacent about the mental damage social media seems in general to be doing to them.” Tonight, I hope councillors will agree continued funding for our Ludlow Young Health scheme. It provides professional support for the mental health and wellbeing of young people. It provides the sort of support that you can’t get in remote rural towns. That includes online situations. There is no complacency here.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Sep '21 - 11:33am

    @Andy Boddington
    Sometimes I have looked at peoples’ facebook or twitter accounts where I’m not required to log in and sometimes been deeply unimpressed with what I’ve seen there.

    I wasn’t suggesting you mightn’t understand the problems faced by women and minorities. I was merely asking if you discussed the problem with fellow councillors.

    “After decades in online communication….”
    Confirms my feeling that you were experienced at using social media. So might be better at dealing with abuse than less experienced people.

    I’m not suggesting that social media cannot be used responsibly. I’m saying that far too often it appears to be used extremely irresponsibly, with the platform owners failing to take responsibility for the harm done.

    There have been a number of reports of well-known people taking themselves off social media because of the amount of abuse they’ve received. There was a short boycott of social media earlier this year by various sporting people. I approved. But it didn’t go anywhere near far enough.

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