The widower of murdered MP Jo Cox has called for a crackdown on anonymous Twitter accounts being used to post abuse - as new research reveals 188,000 offensive tweets were sent to MPs in just one three-month period.
In an emotional interview about his late wife with HuffPost UK, Brendan Cox called for a one-hour election truce to allow candidates to reflect on the values they hold in common and said something must be done to tackle those who peddle hatred online without revealing their own identities.
“I think on social media there are great examples of people, of communities coming back together again,” he said.
“But I do think in particular the ability to anonymise comments and in particular - and I find myself doing it on Twitter - because you end up with so few characters you end up sharpening your response and it therefore leads to an escalating debate.
“I think that is very different, then, from facilitating hate speech on any of those platforms and that I am not expert in at all, but it feels to me like it needs to be taken much more seriously.”
His call comes as a new study shows 188,000 abusive tweets were sent to MPs during a three-month period - which included the EU referendum vote - in 2016.
The analysis by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT and independent think-tank Demos also revealed about one in 20 tweets sent to politicians were abusive and that most of those regularly targeted had threatening or offensive tweets making up 10% of their incoming communications.
The highest volume of abuse occurred on June 23 last year, the day of the referendum vote itself - just a week after Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox was brutally shot and stabbed to death outside a library in her constituency.
Far-right extremist Thomas Mair, 52, was convicted of the mum-of-two’s murder in November and jailed for life.
Campaigning during the referendum was suspended in the immediate aftermath of the killing, with Brendan and the rest of Jo’s family calling for unity and for people to ‘fight against the hatred that killed her’.
Despite this, the BCS/Demos report recorded 7,000 abusive tweets going out to MPs on the day of the vote. Two MPs who received a high volume of negative tweets were women who had previously spoken out about online abuse.
Among those included in the report were:
“@XXX eu bought and paid for, self serving, turncoat parasite.”
“@XXX you two faced fascist. so you’re the blairite shafted member. we know of you #corbyn4pm.”
“@XXX “working families” something you know f**k all about you c**k womble.”
Personal abuse and unqualified insults made up over half of abuse levelled at MPs during the collection period.
BCS says abuse often peaks during times of high media attention and perpetrators feel they are ‘free from repercussions’ due to anonymity.
The organisation thinks developing an ‘abuse algorithm ‘ - a system that can automatically detect abusive language that can be proven to work over an extended duration - could be used as a mechanism to prevent it reaching politicians. It has also suggested working with social media operators to develop a politics-specific online medium.
With 86% of politicians now on Twitter, BCS believes much of the resentment stems from the belief that politicians cannot relate to the public, and social media becomes a way for users to directly communicate with them, expressing their opinion, and venting their frustration.
The report also shows there is a cultural clash between politicians and the online public; MPs who push policy or try to win votes are less popular online, and receive more abuse.
David Evans, director of policy and community at BCS, said: “We are now at a critical time in the development of UK politics, and it requires new approaches.
“At BCS, our goal is to make IT good for society, that’s why, once the dust has settled on the general election, we will be convening a round-table with some of the best minds on this topic, tech companies and have invited representatives of all main political parties to join us to discuss how we progress the debate and identify solutions for this issue.”
The report’s findings were brought into even sharper focus following the terrorist attack at Manchester Arena on Monday evening, which left 22 confirmed dead and dozens of others injured.
Brendan Cox once again spoke out to remind people of the importance of unity.
Police are investigating a tweet sent by LBC’s Katie Hopkins, which led to calls for a boycott of the broadcaster.
Election campaigning has been suspended until further notice, with Theresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd meeting police chiefs in Manchester.