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What Mary Did Next? Shut Down Abusive Trolls

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The BBC's Question Time is one of my favourite programmes of all times. But I decided to skip the broadcast on 17 January 2013 because Nigel Farage of Ukip was scheduled as a guest. One of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to not expose myself to unnecessary abuse and ignorance, and as Farage tends to rant about immigration in inflammatory language with no facts to support his position, I decided to let this one slip. Unfortunately, in this age of modern technology, not everyone can avoid the ignorant hate speech that dogs the immigration debate every where it goes.

Unsurprisingly, much of last week's Question Time focused on immigration after a question posed by an audience member: "Can public services cope with yet another influx of migrants when we open our doors to Romania and Bulgaria this time next year?" What unfolded over nearly 17 minutes of discussion was not earth shattering - it was actually more Reithian style, mouthpiece of the nation BBC: different and diverse opinions arguing for and against migration, authentic stories shared by the audience of positive and negative experiences, a few myths thrown about and a few attempts to dispel them. The only panellist who actually answered the question was Mary Beard, OBE, a professor of classics at Cambridge and presenter of the BBC's fascinating Meet the Romans series.

Being an academic and a broadcaster, Professor Beard came to Question Time well prepared: she actually read the local authority report about the impact of migration. She was not speculating. She was not speaking from her own experience. She found research reports and offered the facts. It is on this basis that Professor Beard concluded and answered the original question - yes, public services can cope. But the audience member did not believe the esteemed professor because migrant workers had camped on her land and her experience trumps the empirical evidence.

This is symptomatic of the immigration debate: why bother with boring facts when emotions and individual experiences are more real for people? Unlike most other debates, the anti-immigration position is based on 'belief' or 'perception' and facts are ignored at best. Fragmented, individual negative experiences with migrants are somehow accepted as objectively representing the whole reality of migration.

Professor Beard did not give in on Question Time and she stuck to her factual evidence based guns. The guests agreed to disagree and it ended in a fairly polite manner.

The next day the audience member, a business woman from Boston of Polish descent, was celebrated by the Daily Mail as the 'heroine' of people, truth and justice - a 'reluctant warrior' against the clever academic and her facts. The Mail included photos of her brave grandparents who fought against the Nazis in WW2. In lieu of facts, this personal story was somehow supposed to add credibility and legitimacy to one person's experience. But while her perception, based on her experience, that the city of Boston is at a breaking point because of 8,850 new migrants in the past 10 years, the local authority report, based on evidence, suggested otherwise.

But, this Question Time is of particular interest because of what happened next.
Professor Beard became the target of a vicious and misogynistic online hate attack. She was singled her out for her comment on immigration and attacked for her appearance, her position at Cambridge, her gender and even her name. The vulgar and violent comments deteriorated to the extent that in the end even Daily Mail commentators took her side.

On her blog - A Don's Life - she tells the full story of what was happening to her as I cannot do justice to the enormity she had to endure. I urge you to read her account of it.

Mary Beard did not just speak out and stand up to the xenophobic, misogynistic trolls. Like a Boudica, she led an uprising against all odds and she won. As of last week, the website Don't Start Me Off that hosted the hate attack was not only forced to apologise but it was shut down!

I don't know if the classics professor would like being compared to the warrior queen, but I resort to this metaphor to illustrate how hard and disempowering it is on this side of the immigration debate.

As a woman, as a refugee, and as an advocate, I was inspired by Professor Beard's courage and her intelligence. For years we have been trying to have a reasoned debate based on facts but to no avail, especially online. When I wrote about immigration on the Guardian's CiF, the majority of nearly 600 comments were negative or abusive. My friends and colleagues advised me not read them and they were right. After the first 150 I had to stop, I felt bullied and traumatised.

Many of our attempts to report hate speech, both online and offline, have fallen on deaf ears. Recently, however, The Forum submitted evidence to the Leveson Inquiry detailing research findings showing the consistent misuse of statistics and lack of citation of evidence in media coverage of immigration. Lord Leveson acknowledged these findings and recommended a third party reporting mechanism be put in place in order to hold these offenders accountable.

While the media play an important role, I expect more from our MPs, as they have a duty to represent us regardless of where we are from. Call me naive, but it is their job to seek facts in these debates. The majority of MPs will immediately accept that perceptions of immigration are based on inaccurate information and media myths, but instead of challenging the myths their policies focused on controlling the borders and reducing the numbers are affirming them.

We still need a reasoned debate on immigration based on facts and the online harassment focused on Professor Beard is emblematic of hate speech, which runs rampant both online and offline for anyone willing to stick up for migrants. We acknowledge that issues are complex and that our politicians have to grapple with the wrath of tabloids, bad polls and now Internet trolls. That is why we need people like Professor Beard: what she did is important, not only for women or the immigration debate, but for our democracy and our society. MPs pay attention - this is what true leadership looks like.