Social media is the expression of all of us. Collectively and individually. Even if people don’t participate 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. Steve Charmley, the deputy leader of Shropshire Council has just resigned citing online abuse.
The question for those 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 the Shropshire Council meeting last Thursday. During the meeting, councillors in the cabinet referred to the pressures of social media several times. One of the portfolio holders promised that training on dealing with social media problems would be offered to cabinet members. We weren’t aware of the context until it was announced shortly after the meeting that the council’s deputy leader had resigned for health reasons. Steve Charmley made clear in an interview for BBC Radio Shropshire that the pressure from social media abuse was a major factor in his resignation:
“It’s a pretty toxic environment at the moment. If you are in the headlights and dealing with lots of services, it’s bound to come into it. 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…
“Once I get my head clear and recharge my batteries a bit, I’m there to support [the leader] at any time.”
Asked by reporter Joanne Gallagher whether abuse from the public had got worse over the years, the newly resigned deputy leader replied:
“Definitely… 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 certainly didn’t get elected to get rocks thrown at me daily. I got elected to change the environment of where I live and represent the people of where I live. That doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment. It’s a different environment, one I want to step away from at the moment and do what I was elected to do. Not to defend myself from faceless idiots.”
Council leader Lezley Picton 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… It’s almost like [as leader] it’s fair game. To me that is not right.”
Speaking during the council meeting, Heather Kidd said that social media companies had a responsibility to tackle online abuse.
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. If you have Shropshire Council’s policies, losing £40 million on shopping centres, driving roads through precious landscapes and mostly ignoring public opinion, council leaders must expect criticism, even condemnation. 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
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 platform, rush up to me in the high street and spit “You are an [effing] hypocrite”. I 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 the 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’t live with it.
A version of this article has been published on Lib Dem Voice.