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Practical advice for handling online abuse

This section sets out practical advice for handling different kinds of abuse and intimidation and maintaining your personal safety and security

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This section presents practical principles that councillors can follow to enhance online security and minimise the risk of online abuse. The principles can be applied to various social media platforms and online communication, and we have provided examples throughout the guide.

Definition and legal position

Online abuse, harassment and intimidation can be defined as “harms facilitated by digital means”[2]. For example, shared content or direct messages on social media with threats of violence, abusive language or behaviour. It also includes smear campaigns, bullying, body-centred abuse, doxing, impersonation, inciting hate, among other activities. Online harassment, abuse and intimidation can be posted or shared on any social media platform (such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp), by email or in online meeting platforms (Zoom, Teams, Skype, Facetime or similar).

Online harassment, abuse and intimidation is the most frequent form of violence, the most easily normalised and, perhaps, the most complicated to deal with by the police and social media platforms. It is important to keep in mind that according to the police, the message received does not necessarily need to be violent in nature but must be oppressive and need to have caused some alarm or distress to the victim in order for police action to take place.

Some of these behaviours are criminal offences. For example, in England and Wales communication which is considered malicious – grossly offensive or indecent, or threatening – may be an offence under the Malicious Communications Act (1988). Repeated unwanted behaviour or conduct – two or more incidents – which could include persistent messages or threats online, ‘following’ on social media and forced contact – may constitute stalking offences (Protection of Freedoms Act 2012) (see legal section below for relevant offences in Scotland and Northern Ireland). In March 2022, the UK Government introduced the Online Safety Bill to Parliament, if enacted, this Bill will provide a raft of new protections and criminal offences designed to combat online abuse.

Preventative and reactive measures against online abuse

The LGA recognises that much needs to be done to guarantee the safety of councillors online. In partnership with colleagues from the Welsh LGA, the Northern Ireland LGA and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the LGA has developed resources to support councillors to be good digital citizens as well as more general social media guidance. Here the LGA has set out high level principles to manage online communications, online abuse, harassment and intimidation.

Get familiar with platform settings

There are different procedures to block, mute, report and delete comments and users in different platforms and it is useful that councillors get familiar with them. Some councillors may feel uneasy about blocking or muting users who are being abusive or threatening, excusing such behaviour as the “normal banter in politics” or freedom of expression. However, the line between freedom of expression and abuse is crossed when the conversation stops being about public issues and becomes personal and disrespectful instead of constructive.

In Scotland, the Improvement Service has published a resource for political groups on remote working and guidance for councillors on holding virtual surgeries.

Set expectations

Councillors can post on their profiles their own rules of engagement where they can establish expectations about the tone and content of online communications as well as consequences faced by those who break them. They are very helpful to set boundaries and manage expectations. By applying the rules consistently, councillors foster constructive debates on their profiles and with their content.

Lead by example

Avoid posting or making comments that could be considered abusive, and/or spread false or unverified information. Engaging in such practices undermines the reputation of the council and can endanger the lives and wellbeing of others. Remember to remain constructive and focused on the discussions, triangulate information and correct falsehoods.

For example, political relations and tensions can intensify during local elections campaigns. In Wales, through the WLGA, the 22 leaders agreed a Fair Campaigns Pledge ahead of the 2022 local elections which was adopted and implemented by political groups and leaders locally. The Fair Campaigns pledges commits candidates to running a fair and respectful election campaign which is based on positive campaigning and merit, rather than personal attacks and smears against individuals.

Across the UK, the Jo Cox Foundation maintains similar campaign and resources for a ‘Civility Pledge’, which focuses on setting an appropriate tone while campaigning, leading by example and promoting the dignity of others.

Consider content

Some content will be more controversial than others. Consider before posting how engagement with this information can be managed. For example, you could only engage in comments on the policy itself or direct people to consultation documents. Some councillors indicate that using official press releases help keeps the discussion focused and constructive.

Defuse conflict

Waiting to respond can take the heat out of situations, as can reframing your own language. Some councillors feel the pressure to respond straight away to all social media communications. This is very time consuming and stressful, sometimes it is better to take a step back and wait some time before responding can help to de-escalate the situation.

Know when to step back

Remember you do not have to engage with abusive or threatening behaviour. You can set the record straight with factual information if you wish, but you can step away when you want to.

Protect your online security and privacy

Set different passwords for different accounts to ensure your online spaces are secure and do not share your passwords. Do not post information that can allow people to identify your whereabouts outside of official council business and use the privacy settings of the various platform to manage who can see or comment on your posts. The LGA has produced more detailed Guidance on using social media which looks at this in more detail.

Get and give support

Where you feel able, provide support to fellow councillors online, and reach out to colleagues and your council for support where needed. Consider acting as a digital ally, for more information on this see the charity Glitches’ guidance on Being an Online Active Bystander.

Record abuse and report serious issues

Screenshot comments and keep a record of abusive or threatening communications. If you feel unable to deal with online abuse yourself or have any concerns about your safety, report this to your council or the police.

[2] Eleonora Esposito. In Press.” Online Violence”, in Elin Bjarnegård and Pär Zetterberg (eds.), Gender and Violence against Political Actors. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press