Speaking at a ‘Women in Media’ online event in Belfast yesterday, the First Minister Arlene Foster said there is growing evidence of “online lynch mobs controlled by dark forces”.
The DUP leader said: “The biggest obstacle to being a woman in public life today is the constant stream of commentary on your appearance, the hourly trolling, and monthly idiot who makes a ‘this is what I’d like to do to you today’ threat.
“The police have been getting better at dealing with this but let’s face it. The social media companies are more powerful than many small countries yet they are failing to tackle these faceless trolls.
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”What concerns me more is the growing evidence of online lynch mobs controlled by dark forces who are unleashed on female public figures like a pack of lions to do as much damage as they can to the public figure and the cause that they represent.”
Speaking on the Nolan Show today to Carla Lockhart MP, who campaigns against online trolling, Mr Nolan revealed his own sinister encounter with organised online intimidation for political purposes.
Questioning how much vicious online trolling of women is by small groups of individuals, he too asked if there are “dark forces at work”.
He said that “one of the biggest untold stories in Northern Ireland is the social media sophisticated machines that have been set up with money and organisation behind them in order to achieve political objectives”.
He added: “I have been threatened by powerful people in Northern Ireland to stop doing particular stories on the Nolan Show or else the tap of social media abuse against me would be turned on.
”I was then contacted and told the circumstances [in which] the tap would be turned off again. And so that you are all very clear, I told that person to go to hell and it didn’t affect one second of our output. But do not be mistaken as to how powerful these machines are.”
UUP MLA Doug Beattie responded that attempting to close down media outlets is “nothing less than fascism” and called for those responsible to be “outed”.
“It is clear that a number of individuals within our media who have a strong voice and give that strong voice to their readers and listeners are the target of campaigns to silence them,” he said. “Why they are trying to be silenced is very clear, because they are highlighting issues that certain groups do not want highlighted and that includes terrorist groups and political parties. It is a well financed campaign, it is organised and it is very deliberate.
“It is now time that those who threatened Stephen Nolan with a smear campaigning if he covered a story should be outed. There must be an investigation, there must be proper scrutiny and there must be political action to support the independence of our media in order for them to report without fear on what affects our society as a whole.
“A free press is the cornerstone of a democracy and those who try to close down media outlets are indulging in nothing less than fascism.
“Like him or loath him Stephen Nolan, and others, do an important role in society and I stand with him in all that he is trying to do.”
Alliance councillor Sorcha Eastwood, who has suffered online rape threats, also condemned the abuse.
“I utterly condemn these threats and sinister trolling of Stephen Nolan, as well as of anyone else who has suffered,” she said. “Nobody should be subjected to that and it shows the ongoing poisoning of the political discourse, particularly via social media.
“Unfortunately, there are indeed those online who subject every section of our community to abuse, via misogynist, sexist, sectarian and other methods. We need to actively explore protections and policies to prevent it, and ensure consequences come to those who carry it out. Online platforms cannot be the Wild West.”
Arlene Foster said: “There is no place for bully boy tactics whether that happens to Stephen Nolan or any other journalist. It is bullying and should be condemned and the people or organisation responsible should be named.”
This morning the News Letter invited the DUP, UUP, Alliance Party, SDLP and Sinn Fein to respond to his claims.
After several reminders, by close of business today all parties except for Sinn Fein and the SDLP had offered statements strongly condemning the attacks on the broadcaster.
Others recount similar experiences
Former Irish Labour Senator Mairia Cahill said the experience of Arlene Foster and Stephen Nolan closely reflected her own - and that she is still being targeted today.
She told the News Letter the online abuse Mrs Foster and Mr Nolan suffered “absolutely reflects my experience” and that “the orchestrated trolling of me... was that bad, it was referred to on the record of the Dail and the assembly. It is still continuing to this day”.
Commentator and broadcaster Ruth Dudley Edwards commented that she is in “the distinguished company of Arlene Foster, Stephen Nolan, Máiría Cahill and many others in being a target for vicious abuse from online lynch mobs”.
She added that she has had “years of it” from organised trolls “who are provided with playbooks of insults and turned on and off” by their leaders “at will”.
“It fascinates me” she said, that that those orchestrating such trolling portray themselves as “progressive” and yet have “an army of activists who begin so many of their angry expletive-ridden tweets about my politics with ‘Ugly old’ and end with the ‘C’ word.”
However she said that while such attacks only “stiffen her resolve”, for many young people this kind of abuse is a deterrent to getting involved in public life.
“I am strongly in favour of free speech but I think we should look critically at the issue of anonymity,” she added.
Victims campaigner Ann Travers congratulated Arlene Foster for calling out the social media companies and their responsibilities to their users.
“She is quite right when she talks about ‘dark forces’, she added. “The abuse on social media can be very coordinated. I tend to let most of the abuse that I receive slide by and just block them.
“But over the past few years I have received continual harrassment from one particular account, which almost on a daily basis defamed and lied about my deceased father, told factual untruths about my sister’s murder and taunted me for speaking up for victims and my family .
“As a result of this person’s tweets others were then encouraged to ‘pile on’ with what I call ‘pop up’ accounts.
“These are accounts which are created to tweet as many times as they can in the minutes before you block them. “They then ‘disappear’. These accounts say the vilest of things, wishing that I had been shot, that I would choke, issue menacing threats, call misogynistic names.”
The News Letter asked the PSNI what crimes such trolls are usually committing online and for an idea of the number of arrests, charges and prosecutions it has carried out in recent years.
Detective Superintendent Gareth Talbot from the PSNI Criminal Investigation Branch said trolling or sending abusive messages online can constitute a criminal offence in Northern Ireland under a number of pieces of legislation, including the Communications Act 2003. Offences could also include harassment and intimidation.
“Anyone who has any concerns is asked to contact police on 101 number or to submit a report online using the non-emergency reporting form via http://www.psni.police.uk/makeareport/,” he said.
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