Abusive and threatening comments on social media are on the increase. Ruth Le Pla charts the rise of online nastiness towards local body candidates and elected members and asks what can be done about it.
Is it time to bring in stricter controls to stamp out online abuse of local government elected officers? Is that even possible in a democracy that values free speech? Or could we, in such circumstances, at least provide better ways to support councillors and those standing for local body elections?
Such questions and more have been hot topics in the media recently. They were triggered by the announcement by Tauranga councillor Leanne Brown that she would not stand for re-election in this year’s October local body elections due to ‘vicious’ comments on social media.
The situation has been bubbling away for some time. Online abuse of elected members runs the gamut from ill-informed – or just plain dopey – comments right through to name calling, personal attacks and even death threats. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the favourite vehicles of people too cowardly to front up in person. Comments are often made anonymously or remain difficult to track to their source.
Long-standing local government stalwarts say the level of abuse is growing. Richard Kempthorne, who has served four terms as mayor of Tasman District Council, says social media has become ‘increasingly unhealthy’. He suspects it is putting off some people from standing for election.
In Auckland, councillor Penny Hulse, who has been involved in local body politics for 27 years, says personal attacks can still wound her.
These are experienced, highly competent members of the local government community. So how much harder must it be for anyone just starting to serve in local government? And it is service. That’s an old-fashioned word to many, perhaps, but it’s exactly what it is.
Penny says that, for newbies, it must be like “dipping their toes into a pool with piranhas”.
LGNZ president Dave Cull has called for more respect for people who step up for their communities. He says comments in social media often “play the person, not the ball”.
The problem is doubly difficult for candidates in the local body elections. ALGIM CE Mike Manson says councils are not responsible for comments made about candidates so it falls back to the individual to take recourse against the person or persons who made the statements.
“This can be difficult as often the commentator is anonymous, and action would require a formal complaint being lodged for defamation.”
Councils can at least back up elected members in the event of serious threat. Marguerite Delbet, Auckland Council’s general manager democracy services, says that when Penny Hulse received death threats – someone said in a Facebook post that she should be shot – council went to the Police. “And we’ve done that for some of our [other] councillors.”
Marguerite notes that, “generally speaking”, violence and verbal abuse toward council staff is increasing too.
In the UK
Levels of abuse towards elected council members are on the rise overseas too. In the UK earlier this year, councillor Paul White stepped down from his role at Pendle Borough Council in east Lancashire following a series of threatening messages.
Aged just 32, and widely tipped as a rising star of local politics, he had been diagnosed with heart failure. He attributed his ill health to the stress of the job. Paul had called the Police four times due to threatening messages from constituents.
Paul said that politics had become increasingly divisive in the past couple of years and people of opposing views were being subjected to “real nastiness”. He had even asked for councillors’ addresses not to be made publicly available. His request was refused.
Early last year former British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would back a proposed new law making it illegal to intimidate central government election candidates and their campaigners. The move has sparked rigorous debate about any possible impact on free speech.
Theresa May said at the time that, because some candidates and their families had been targeted in their own homes, she would extend to local government candidates “the same protection which parliamentary candidates have to keep their home addresses secret”.
Meanwhile, here in New Zealand, Marguerite says there is no specific action that local government elected members can take that would be any different from any other person being subject to cyber bullying.
“So, it would be the same advice that you would give to a young person or anybody who is subject to cyber bullying. Obviously, if it is serious enough you would report it to the Police. The other thing is to not be online being subject to it.
“Erase the incendiary comments,” she says. “Certainly, don’t respond. And don’t leave those comments online. [That means] you don’t see them anymore and it also de-escalates the kind of banter that might be happening, which can be deeply unpleasant.”
Marguerite also advises people to seek support from their own network and people close to them. “We’ve found the abuse can be very personal and it’s hard not to take it personally.”
She adds that, apart from the “horrible toll” that online abuse takes on people, she feels for the impact on democracy.
“We spend a lot of effort trying to increase voter participation. We know that voter participation is dependent on having a choice of candidates to vote for. So, we need the diversity of candidates to stand.
“If people say they’re not going to stand because it’s just too unpleasant to be abused online, democracy is going backwards.”
BY ELIZABETH HUGHES, Elizabeth Hughes Communication
Just as it is largely futile trying to stamp out thugs and dickheads in real life, the best advice to deal with keyboard wimps, is to manage the only thing you can – yourself. If you are the kind of person who prides themselves on ‘giving as good as I get’ – then you’re probably not too fazed by the bullying so you can stop reading now. (Yes, they walk among us…)
However, most people will experience hurt, frustration, intimidation and just plain weariness from persistent bullying and obnoxious behaviour in cyberspace. Here are some ideas that might help.
1. Show some anti-bully leadership
Be clear about the type of debate you welcome, and how you will respond to online abuse. Call this your own personal “social media policy” (if you must) and, every time a troll posts something that breaches this, repost your statement (no comment, just the statement).
2. Turn and walk away
Bullies need a response like addicts need a fix. Their aim is to deliberately provoke, hurt, be noticed, to make you angry – in other words – to get a reaction. Don’t do it. If you must – revert to the idea above.
3. Quietly shut the door
Just because you are elected, does not mean you have to allow rude and obnoxious people a platform. After due warning (having made this clear via your social media policy), if they persist, block them – with an open invitation to return if they choose to find some manners.
4. Put it in perspective (have a wine)
Imagine a bell curve made up of all the people using social media. Online trolls live at one extreme end of this bell curve (under a bridge) – with a tiny number of like-minded people. “Normal”, ordinary, kind and thoughtful people make up the hump in the middle. Focus on these people (AKA the silent majority) as they are the ones who really need you to hear their voice.
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.