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It's Time for All of Us to Do Something to Stand up for Decency, Civility and Respect for Other Human Beings Online

18/07/2016 07:32 | Updated 18 July 2016
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

Death threats, rape threats, refugees demonised, EU citizens told to go home, a Muslim Mayor targeted with islamophobia, a Jewish MP bombarded with anti-Semitic threats, young women campaigners called traitors or scum. Political debate online is being poisoned and it has to stop.

When I first called for a campaign to reclaim the internet from online abuse seven months ago, I said loudly that I thought this shouldn't be about politicians or political debates. We had cross-party support, and I wanted people to focus on the teenagers targeted with online homophobic bullying or revenge porn, the women working in science or the tech industry being bombarded with misogynist abuse or threats, the staff in public services facing racist harassment on Facebook or Twitter, or the young campaigners silenced by abuse when they tried to speak out.

Over months we have built a coalition of organisations - from the police to GirlGuidesUK, from the teaching union NASUWT to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and campaign organisations like Hope not Hate - all contributing to today's Reclaim the Internet Conference, and calling for more action against online abuse.

But the disturbing escalation of vitriol in public life in recent months means we cant keep politics separate, because it sets a climate for wider abuse too. Since the referendum, there has been a fivefold increase in hate crime. Much of it is online. Demos identified 5,000 xenophobic tweets in just a few days. For some time T​ell Mama​ have been reporting rising online islamophobia, CST reports rising online anti-semitism - and both warn of the links with far right websites and groups.

MPs have had death threats for speaking out in support of different campaigns. Women campaigners have faced vile misogynist abuse. Journalists like Owen Jones are targeted with appalling homophobic threats and harassment.

Passionate disagreement and strong debate are essential in a democracy. The internet and social media are amazing ways to give voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful to account. DEMOS also found a big increase in online activity opposing xenophobia, and there have been brilliant empowering campaigns like #EverydaySexism or #YouAintNoMuslimBruv. But that's why it is so important to prevent a minority of screaming, threatening people from silencing others.

Much of the really nasty abuse is from the far right. But not all of it. Mainstream parties and politicians need to reflect on their responsibility for how we got here and how we pull it back.

Ukip supported a vile poster campaign demonising Syrian refugees. What are they doing now to stop their members posting divisive attacks on refugees online?

Tory MPs ran an appalling campaign against Sadiq Khan in London. And Leave campaigners used false claims about Turkey to increase hostility to foreign citizens. What are they now doing to take a stand against online xenophobia?

In the Scottish referendum online abuse by "cybernats" was a serious problem. Are the SNP sufficiently challenging the abuse by their members online?

And we in the Labour Party must urgently wake up, given the level of online abuse within our party right now. Of course people have strong views about the leadership and they need to be able to express them. But we cannot tolerate threats, bullying, intimidation or vitriolic abuse by party members - either of other members or anyone else - it goes against the deeply held views of our Labour Party, and is morally wrong.

I'm glad that leadership candidates have signed up to a clean campaign. But it's not enough. Labour has a responsibility to party members, staff, elected representatives and supporters to ensure they are not subject to a baying mob online or offline.I've proposed a new online code of conduct so where there is serious abuse, intimidation or harassment online, members face expulsion from the Party. As leader, Jeremy Corbyn should have done this himself instead of just warm words.

Most organisations - including political parties, employers and trade unions - have standards of behaviour or decency they expect people to follow offline. It's time they all showed some leadership and set some standards online too.

And then lets build a new consensus on the wider action we need and will be debating today at the Reclaim the Internet conference.

We need much more action in schools and among young people to tackle bullying online, and prevent abuse in the next generation - including compulsory online safety and sex and relationship education in all our schools.

We need stronger action from the police and prosecutors when laws are broken. Too often officers investigating abuse don't even know how the social media platforms work - new training, new guidance and a full review of the law are all needed.

And we need action from social media platforms and publishers that goes beyond the code they have recently signed with the EU Commission - including more investment in safety, more transparency about the scale of the problem, and more protection particularly against organised and repeated abuse.

And every one of us needs to stop being a bystander. Time to start reporting, speaking out, standing up for others who are being targeted. They say evil triumphs when good people do nothing. Time for all of us to do something to stand up for decency, civility and respect for other human beings. Tim Berners-Lee said when he invented the world wide web, "this is for everyone." Lets make sure it stays so.

Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford

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