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Steve and Big Ben 2

It would seem that my campaign on trolling is now gathering some steam. Since I last sat down to update you on our campaign, we have seen some high profile cases.

Of course for me, the issue came to light after the tragic death of 16-year-old Georgia Varley. Over the festive period we saw a number of people spreading their own kind of warped festive cheer as the lead singer of the military wives group was trolled, it seemed, uncontrollably, simply because she proudly sports tattoos.

Then came the alleged racial abuse of Stan Collymore by a 21-year-old law student from Newcastle University. If ever you needed proof that people operate in the cyber world in a wholly different way to how they operate in the real world, than surely the example of a law student abusing a former black footballer and thinking he was going to get away with it, is all the evidence you need.

We also had a case, which highlighted the difficulty with detection. A man using his workmate’s mobile telephone racially abused the then Everton striker, Louis Saha, on twitter. Thankfully the guilty party admitted that he had used his mate’s phone but it brings to light the difficult for the police in proving that a certain person is sitting on the end of a computer, ipad or phone.

Endless other cases have come to my attention too; the 96 is never Enough Facebook page, which is used to hurl abuse at anyone, not just Liverpool fans, who are appalled at the Hillsborough families’ treatment over the years. The footballer, Billy Sharp, who lost his son recently, has had the most outrageous messages from one individual, glorifying in Sharp’s loss.

These are the ones we know about – the daily heartache or millions of people who do not command public spotlight, at the moment, goes unbeknown to me, you or even the parents and closest friends of some of these victims.

The media is starting t wake up to this too. Recently BBC Panorama and BBC Inside Out in the North West undertook programmes about this topic. I gave contributions to both (though not used by both) where I made plain that this was a growing problem but one that I genuinely believe can b stopped by changing people’s perceptions. If we make people aware that by doing this on the Internet, you will still face severe consequences, I am confident that legislation may not even be needed.

Recently, I called a meeting with representatives from Facebook in the Houses of Parliament.

I better understand the complexities of the verification and report process. There were things I heard which, if I am brutally honest, I didn’t like at all. The mantra that it is OK to say things on Facebook that you would hear in the pub, no matter how offensive, fails, in my opinion, to properly regulate the system. It doesn’t take into careful enough consideration the different interpretations that people can draw from just simple text on a screen, absent of a tone, emphasis and pitch, in the way that a conversation has in the pub. And also, we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to a higher moral account, wherever possible.

One of the great success stories over the last two decades in Britain has been the way in which we have changed hearts and minds on the issue of racism. No longer can you sit in the boozer and refer to black people in the most hideous of terms without someone else either correcting them personally, or warning the landlord to do something or risk losing custom. It is evident that we have changed people’s outlooks and it didn’t take a piece of legislation to do it. Why then, should we not impose similar changes in perspective via mediums such as Facebook?

Another area in the Facebook discussion that I am uncomfortable with is when they claim to want to educate rather than punish individuals who misuse their site.  In principle, I understand why you would want to do this.  We all make mistakes, especially when we are in our teens. Yet I can’t see how this would apply to hardcore trolls, most of who belong in prison. Isn’t it just a mechanism to let them off and offend more people before the appropriate action is taken?

I don’t want this to sound as though I am having a go at Facebook. I was really impressed with our meeting, their expertise and the efforts that they have made and will continue to make in order to tackle cyber bullying and improve cyber protection. I even think there is recognition from them that they can, should and will do more to tackle the issue.

Their representatives who met with me in parliament said that I was the first MP to raise the issue of trolling with them. That to me is extraordinary and shows how unknown this phenomenon is. Make no mistakes however, it is growing and it will continue to grow unless we get on top of it. 

Facebook have kindly offered to try and arrange a visit for me to go to their HQ in Dublin and see for myself, the work that they are doing on various aspects of the report and trolling phase in the operation. I am also going to meet with their law enforcement officers and talk with a leading expert in online verification who is currently leading on a piece of work that involves Facebook and various other online forums.

We are making progress. There is more work to be done on this issue, but I know that we are on the right side of the argument and that together, we can help stamp out this vile practice.

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