Identifying extreme online abuse is easy, tackling it in ways that maintain free speech is harder

News Letter editorial of Monday January 3 2021:

By Editorial
Monday, 3rd January 2022, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 3rd January 2022, 8:44 am
News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

The response to the cruel and abusive tweet sent to Diane Dodds MLA about her late son has been one of almost universal revulsion.

It would be surprising if the public reaction was otherwise.

After all, very few people would even privately feel a desire to taunt someone else about the loss of their child, let alone act on it. Nigel and Diane Dodds’ son Andrew was born with spina bifida and died in 1998 just before his ninth birthday.

As if their son’s illness was not enough of a trauma, the IRA tried to murder Nigel Dodds in 1996 as he visited Andrew at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

There is a strong case to be made that the vile tweet sent to Mrs Dodds is best ignored, for the aforementioned reasons — almost no-one thinks such things, let alone says them.

At the same time, it is not good enough to ignore internet abuse. While this particular message was extreme, less extreme web abuse can be carried out by packs of trolls. Sometimes they seem to be politically organised, other times —as is seemingly the case in this instance —they are lone abusers.

We carry below (in Tweets of the Day in the print edition) a tweet by Anne Graham, brother of Edgar, who was murdered by the IRA in 1983. She has challenged the insults she gets about him from people who justify his killing to her. That must be an agonising experience.

Identifying abuse is the easy part. Doing something about it without damaging free speech is much harder.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is rightly floating the idea of some form of verification. Some years ago this newspaper moved away from accepting anonymous letters unless there is good reason for anonymity, and even if granted we seek first to establish the identity of the author.

But significant measures against twitter abuse will come with their own problems. While this appalling case is straightforward, there is no shortage of censors who will try to identify unfairly as abusive blunt messages that they dislike politically.

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