Don't Feed the Trolls

09/06/2016 16:48 | Updated 09 June 2016

Earlier this week, I received a call from a reporter who wanted to discuss online trolling. As I pinned my mobile between ear and shoulder while feeding my newborn daughter, I wondered what new angle the papers might have come up with on an old topic. Online abuse is not a new phenomenon, and though people are always keen to hear what their MPs have to say, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be breaking any new ground.

I didn't give the comment another thought until my inbox started flooding with messages of sympathy and support from friends and strangers.

This outpouring of shock caught me by surprise. ‎I have been around online abuse for years, as have the majority of other politicians, and I couldn't fathom how‎ people weren't aware of the scale of trolling. It happens right under everyone's noses, in clear daylight. Why does it take something so extreme, so abhorrent, such as Jess Philips MP and her band of demented abusers threatening to rape her, for other users to sit up and react?

Although not limited to women, social media can be an extremely hostile place for us. I do my best to use Twitter as a means of communicating with constituents, but my past eagerness and enjoyment of the medium is withering. Conversations degenerate into polarising binary choices, arguments with no end, all forced into the confines of 140 characters. Nuance is apparently becoming a thing of the past.

Among politicos Twitter is becoming a case of who can be snarkiest or rudest. Many comments directed at politicians merely exist to provoke a reaction rather than add value. Of course the public should feel free to vent at their representatives, especially if done with decency. However, there are far too many examples where the abuse simply becomes so personal and so graphic that it can in fact become a matter of personal anxiety for those on the receiving end.

And it is personal. When the volume of abuse is ratcheted up, messages are difficult to avoid. Notifications on mobiles mean you find yourself at 3am reading Twitter mentions that frankly, anyone could do without at the best of times. With social media also acting as a dependable source of scrutiny, we can't just "delete the app". As a result, many politicians (at all levels) simply factor online abuse into their daily lives.

My own personal trollstorm came about when I had the audacity to call out Donald Trump's racist and divisive rhetoric. The actual words didn't really bother me - I'm a middle child after all - but it shone a light onto a group of people who I hope exist on the fringe of society.

We can't let the internet become the sacred preserve of those who shout the loudest, so I will certainly continue to express my views, even if '@hatersgalore' don't like it. Cowards hiding behind screens won't intimidate me into silence.

But we can and must do more to make the digital environment a cleaner place. Social media sites need to be more aware of online abuse, as reporting it is a totally unsatisfactory experience. While moderators can be quick to remove a photo of a woman breastfeeding topless woman, misogynistic diatribes against women who dare to speak up in public life are left unchecked.

Many of the new crop of MPs may have grown up with social media, but nothing can prepare you for the influx of messages - negative and positive - when actually becoming an MP.‎ We must train aspiring politicians to be aware of potential online abuse and how they can deal with it.

I'm volunteering my services to give the first seminar. Its title: Don't Feed The Trolls.