I can’t claim to be shocked by much on social media, but what did surprise me was the endorsement of one particular ‘Brits Out’ tweet aimed at myself by at least four Sinn Fein members, including one elected councillor.
I wasn’t that shocked they would endorse the tweet; I have come to expect this sort of rhetoric from Sinn Fein even if I am still slightly bewildered by it.
I was just surprised they would have the audacity to do so in a public forum.
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I have been subject to a campaign of abuse from anonymous republican trolls in recent months that has increased in both magnitude and severity.
It is no longer about insults and abuse; the so-called Twitter ‘Bots’ have now degenerated to callous and libellous attacks on my character, my appearance, my family, even smears about my personal life have now become fair game.
Whatever people like me say, we are called bigots by these trolls. They use the same tactics repeatedly and operate in packs and their abuse certainly looks co-ordinated.
The irony is that I am a reasonably constructive unionist; I am fiercely opposed to sectarianism and I have challenged such abuse even when directed at my political opponents.
Don’t get me wrong, what I have suffered is nothing compared to that faced by the likes of Ann Travers, whose sister was murdered by the IRA and Máiría Cahill, who was sexually assaulted by a member of the IRA.
It is concerning that a large portion of the abuse I have suffered has been in response to my support for Máiría in particular.
But it has still affected me.
There has been talk of such campaigns being orchestrated; I am firmly of the belief that they are.
The motivation in these cases are obvious, to silence those who have suffered at the hands of the IRA from speaking out.
However in other cases the motivation is less clear; I am thinking particularly of the abuse directed at the younger generation of unionists, including the artist Brian John Spencer.
I expect a level of abuse on social media — I am not naive.
However in many cases such abuse has been relentless and I am surprised how the loyalist Jamie Bryson in particular manages to shrug it off so easily.
They don’t even bother to challenge him on what he says any more.
As the writer and commentator Malachi O’Doherty recently surmised, “the objective is to make him tire of social media, to feel that it is always going to be a disheartening, uphill struggle”.
I have to admit this feeling has not been entirely alien to me in recent weeks.
My main concern in this regard is that younger unionists will be dissuaded from speaking out with their own opinions when they witness such blatant vilification of others.
Social media is already an unforgiving environment.
Having orchestrated Bots waiting to pour scorn and abuse on even the most innocuous of poorly worded tweets is hardly going to endear anyone to speak out.
The question going forward is how we challenge this behaviour effectively.
We can no longer allow these Bots free rein to engage in abuse and intimidation.
This is hate speech and malicious communication.
It is time we took a stand for our community.
• Richard Garland describes himself as a unionist activist and commentator
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