Debate on online harms, House of Commons, 7 October 2020

Through their public health functions, councils have responsibilities around tackling addiction and other public-harm issues. There is increasing evidence that social media can become addictive and harmful. We have also seen it used as an additional gambling platform, enticing young and vulnerable people without adequate safeguards for their protection.


Key messages

  • Councils have a core and statutory responsibility for the safeguarding, protection and wellbeing of children, as well as suicide prevention. The internet has created a powerful medium for the exploitation and abuse of children on an international scale and makes it harder to monitor abuse and bullying. Social media has provided a platform for the sharing of harmful images and information affecting self-esteem, self-image and mental health. These issues must be tackled on a local to national to international level.
  • In addition, councils have responsibility to protect their residents from radicalisation, terror and crime. The internet has created a forceful platform for these threats. Social media has also made individuals more traceable and accessible, raising safety issues for those feeling from domestic abuse.
  • Through their public health functions, councils have responsibilities around tackling addiction and other public-harm issues. There is increasing evidence that social media can become addictive and harmful. We have also seen it used as an additional gambling platform, enticing young and vulnerable people without adequate safeguards for their protection.
  • As a result, our members are concerned about the increase in online hate crime against our communities and against our vulnerable residents.
  • Councillors are also experiencing the threat of online harms. Online intimidation, abuse and threats against councillors is putting prospective councillors off from standing. This is undermining the integrity of our democracy. Women, those from BAME groups, members of our LGBT+ community and those with disabilities are being particularly targeted, The current police advice to remove their social media presence curtails the ability of these candidates to campaign using this platform, hampering them from gaining public office and affecting our democracy and equality.
  • The spread of misinformation on the internet includes stories around councils and council services, which can lead to mistrust in our public services and abuse being directed towards local councillors.
  • As part of the LGA’s Be a Councillor campaign, which encourages and helps people of all backgrounds become councillors, we produced a Councillor’s guide to handing intimidation, which recognises the growing need among councillors for support related to intimidation.
  • Our Re-thinking public finances submission makes clear that the Comprehensive Spending Review is a once in a generation opportunity to shape the direction of this country for years to come. We are clear that responding to the significant economic challenges ahead requires renewed joint endeavour between local and national government as equal partners and with the right powers, sustainable funding, and enhanced flexibilities local government can build on the positives we have achieved in the past few months and ensure our communities prosper for the future.

Vulnerable children and young people

Councils are very concerned about additional vulnerabilities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes more families living in poverty; mental health issues amongst both children and parents; increasing domestic abuse; and increasing substance misuse issues. In particular, councils are concerned that falling referrals to children’s social care following the partial closure of schools means that children are experiencing ‘hidden harm’, which may only come to light as we move into recovery.

Councils have a core and statutory responsibility for the safeguarding, protection and wellbeing of children. The internet has created a huge medium for the exploitation and abuse of children on an international scale, and this must be tackled on a local to national to international level.

Work is taking place locally to try to ensure that partners and communities are engaged in identifying children at risk, particularly as children have returned to school.

Youth workers are likely to have a particular role to play in supporting young people as the country recovers from the pandemic. Supporting them to pursue positive paths through this difficult time will be key to avoiding negative outcomes such as long-term unemployment, mental and physical health difficulties or criminal activity further down the line.

While reports of youth violence and criminal activity fell during lockdown, concerns have been raised about the threats to vulnerable young people around criminal exploitation with suggestions that gang activity has not reduced – rather, there has been a change in behaviour, for example targeting different young people, carrying out online recruitment and staying local rather than operating on traditional county lines models. The National Youth Agency has highlighted that increased vulnerabilities as a result of COVID-19 could place vulnerable young people at greater risk, and has emphasised the importance of a youth work and youth services response to adequately identify and support young people at risk or affected by child criminal exploitation.

Mental wellbeing

Councils take their responsibilities for the mental and emotional wellbeing of children and young people seriously. The internet has created a new and harder-to-monitor space for abuse and bullying. Social media has provided a platform for the sharing of harmful images and information affecting self-esteem, self-image and mental health.

The mental health and wellbeing response is best led locally by councils who have the insight, community assets (such as parks, libraries and schools) and partnerships to identify need and target interventions across the mental health spectrum. Councils are best placed to help the whole population with mental wellbeing, including online mental wellbeing, as well as working with health colleagues and other partners to support those who are mentally unwell.

Radicalisation

Councils have a responsibility to protect their residents from radicalisation, terrorism and crime.

The internet is often a source of extreme and divisive content, both illegal and legal, with thousands of uploads of extremist content everyday. It provides a tool for stirring community tensions, garnering support for extremists and extreme ideology, and the radicalisation of some individuals – with consequences both on and offline.

The past few months have seen a number of extremism and cohesion concerns related to the pandemic, with the online space being used to spread harmful narratives, fake videos and memes. Examples include:

  • Blaming certain communities for the origins of the virus and/or for breaching lockdown measures leading to its spread.
  • Conspiracy theories, with unprecedented mainstream circulation. For instance, including several linking the 5G network to COVID-19 and others expressing deep mistrust in government and mainstream media messaging about the pandemic.
  • Mis and dis-information regarding the virus, treatment of the virus and also the public sector’s response to the virus. This undermines local credibility and potentially puts vulnerable people at risk if they follow wrong advice or are dissuaded from contacting services for support.
  • We expect that extremists will continue to use the post-COVID landscape to support ‘blaming’ and ‘othering’ narratives; economic decline and rising inequality (or perceptions of these) in particular, have traditionally provided fertile territory for extremists to exploit.

In his recent evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, National Lead for Counter Terrorism Policing at the Metropolitan Police Service, described an increase in hateful extremism-related material online and stated that the amplification of extremism, and its ability to incite vulnerable people towards terrorism, was his greatest single fear.

Councils are increasingly concerned about the need to respond effectively and build resilience to emerging tensions and threats from hate crime and radicalisation. It is vital that continued investment in prevention and resilience work, including integration, counter-extremism and Prevent initiatives, is secured.

Intimidation of elected representatives

Online social media provides a potent platform for the abuse of our elected representatives, including councillors. There are multiple examples across the UK where local councillors have stepped down as a result of online abuse, and we are aware of prospective councillors put off from standing because of the spectre of online abuse and harassment. If we are to ensure we have a representative and diverse range of councillors making local decisions, we need to tackle the blight of online abuse.

The LGA has been liaising with Dr Sofia Collignon from Royal Holloway University, who conducted research earlier this year into the experience councillors in England have had with regards to intimidation. The full research is yet to be published, however emerging findings from that research are that one in every two women councillors suffered of harassment motivated by prejudice against women; one in two BAME councillors experienced prejudice against ethnic minorities and three in every four councillors with disability indicated that they suffered from prejudice against people with disabilities.

The LGA, alongside the other UK Local Government Associations, have signed a shared statement that the abuse of councillors is not acceptable. To support councillors dealing with intimidation, particularly online, the LGA produced guidance on handling intimidation. The guide covers topics such as how to handle abuse, both face-to-face, letters or online, and the legal and practical remedies, including the nature of the criminal offences involved and will be continuously updated with the latest advice and information available.

Online Harms White Paper

The LGA’s submission to the Government’s Online Harms White Paper supports the Government’s undertaking to address the abuse and exploitation of our online environment and social media through the creation of duty of care on online platforms, the creation of codes of practice, and the role of a regulator in monitoring and enforcing compliance. The LGA would like to see Government go further in some areas. We recommend that:

  • The proposed online media literacy strategy goes further to embrace the principles of digital citizenship and good public discourse.
  • The regulatory framework should be extended to children’s mental safety as well as physical safety, as abuse is not always physical.
  • There is a more consistent and serious police response to the online intimidation and harassment of those in public office.
  • Action to protect MPs from harassment and abuse includes protections for local councillors.

Comprehensive Spending Review

The LGA's Re-thinking public finances submission makes clear that the Comprehensive Spending Review is a once in a generation opportunity to shape the direction of this country for years to come. We are clear that responding to the significant economic challenges ahead requires renewed joint endeavour between local and national government as equal partners and with the right powers, sustainable funding, and enhanced flexibilities local government can build on the positives we have achieved in the past few months and ensure our communities prosper for the future.

The Spending Review must properly resource councils to enable investment in preventative universal and early help services to ensure that children, young people and their families receive the practical, emotional, education and mental health support they need, as soon as they need it.

Contact

Laura Johnson, Public Affairs Support Officer

laura.johnson@local.gov.uk