Social media abuse: Leighton Buzzard councillor reveals 'explosion' of online bullying, harassment and intimidation incidents
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An "explosion" in the use of social media to bully, harass and intimidate councillors and council officers has led a leading Leighton Buzzard councillor to call for tough sanctions against those who carry out the abuse.
Cllr Amanda Dodwell, who serves on both Leighton-Linslade Town Council and Central Beds Council, says abuse of public officials needs to be punished regardless of whether it is carried out online or in "the real world".
She spoke out at the weekend in her online blog, revealing that in recent days she'd been attacked online by a "small handful" of the community who cannot tell the difference between scrutinising those in public office and intimidating them.
She wrote: "Over the past week or so I have been accused of being the 'local Freemasons’ dogs-body and 'subservient to other councillors' and it has been suggested I should stop posting on social media.
"More generally, local councillors have been referred to as 'rogue individuals', 'like a cancer', 'corrupt crooks who are abusing the public', and it has been inferred (with regards to granting planning permission) they are 'working in concert with local developers possibly for their own gain'."
Her comments follow a recent social media boycott by professional football clubs and governing bodies to support the fight against online abuse.
Cllr Dodwell has been a Leighton Buzzard councillor for more than 10 years and before that was a councillor in Oxfordshire. Although she says online abuse is not a new phenomenon, she told the LBO she believed the situation had deteriorated over the past 15 months.
She told us: "The nature of the abuse has changed. We now see a lot more ‘internet pile ons’, where one person will make an abusive comment, which then opens the floodgates to more people joining it. I strongly believe this is related to the so-called cancel culture, where mass abuse is used as a means of silencing those who speak out on issues, or simply hold a differing view.
"I have spoken out on this issue several times, and each time I find the very people who should be taking note are the ones who turn around and suggest I am dressing up scrutiny and debate as harassment and abuse. Sadly, they do not seem to be able to tell the difference!”
She admitted she perhaps had become a little more thick-skinned towards online abuse and had – sadly – accepted it as part of being a woman in politics. But she told the LBO: "I have on many occasions over the past year seen abuse targeted towards council officers, who cannot go online to defend themselves, and colleagues who have been so intimidated they never venture onto social media again. I am speaking up for the women who have suffered online abuse, who for whatever reason cannot speak out.
“Thankfully, the vast majority of social media contributors are able to air their concerns without it becoming abusive. There are however a small number of people on social media who seem to repeatedly target me and my female colleagues. It doesn’t seem to matter what the issue is. They will take every opportunity, and will even tag you into a debate to draw your attention to their comments!
"It is only in the past 12 or so months that I have – once or twice – asked myself if it is worth the abuse. I enjoy the work I do as a councillor, and I will not let online bullies drive me from the job I have been elected to do. Sadly, I know of colleagues – not necessarily in Leighton Buzzard – who have had enough and are considering their future.”
And Cllr Dodwell insists she won't let be driven off social media by the abuse either. “In the modern world, social media is a vital tool for any politician to keep in touch with the community, she said.
"Whilst it might be tempting to leave social media altogether, I have found ways to deal with the abuse. I won’t post on certain local sites, I have blocked one or two users from seeing my content, and as far as possible I avoid getting into arguments.
"I post what I have to say, and then more or less walk away and ignore the comments. However, I have colleagues who avoid social media altogether, or have briefly tried it and found the abuse too much. Some of the abuse is deliberately intended to drive them off of social media – some while ago, a colleague posted on a local site and was immediately subject to a pile-on – one of the comments was that ‘this will be last we see of them’.”
In her blog Cllr Dodwell pointed out that a recent report to Parliament by the Local Government Association has highlighted how councillors from ‘underrepresented groups’ (woman, BAME groups, LBTQ+ community and those with disabilities’) were being particularly targeted.
She wrote: "This would seem to be the case locally, where following an explosion in the use of social media to abuse councillors and council officers, virtually all the abuse is targeted at female councillors or officers - despite females making up less than 30% of councillors on both Leighton-Linslade Town Council and Central Beds Council."
Cllr Dodwell pointed out how the LGA report calls on Parliament to introduce a new criminal offence, making it an offence to intimidate a person in public office.
She wrote: "I know this suggestion will cause outrage in some quarters, and I do understand there is a need for those in elected public office to be scrutinised and held to account. However, there is a fine line between scrutiny and intimidation, between being held to account and being harassed. And sadly, there are a very small handful of members of our community who cannot tell the difference.
"Whilst social media has given a voice to those who previously might have found it difficult to engage in local issues, it has also made it far too easy for this small minority to bully, harass and intimidate those in public office. The need for proper legal protection has now become necessary so those who do use social media in this way can be dealt with in just the same way as someone who behaved in this manner in the ‘real world’."
What's your view? Have you seen examples of the public overstepping the mark when it comes to questioning our local representatives? Email [email protected]