Hayes in the House: How social media has blurred the lines - by MP John Hayes

South Holland and the Deepings MP John Hayes.
South Holland and the Deepings MP John Hayes.
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Social networking websites have been popular online for over a decade now.

According to the Silicon Valley billionaires who created the likes of Facebook and Twitter, which have become part of the fabric of many people’s daily lives, the founding principle of such sites was to bring people together, empowering them and connecting the world.

Sadly, this dark side to social media is increasingly prevalent, with barely a day passing without countless examples in the national papers about online abuse, trolling and even death threats being levelled at those in the public eye.

Certainly, there are those who benefit from social media; for some they are a form of escape from the mundane and prosaic. However it’s time to acknowledge that social media has harmfully blurred the lines between what is said in the virtual world and what happens in the real one.

Whereas in the past those with extreme opinions or peculiar theories were obliged to rely on obscure publications to gain a wider audience, the Internet enables an easy means of gaining attention for those that don’t warrant it. The simplicity of connectivity – messages typed from smartphones or tablets - lull some into thinking that what they say on the Internet is confined to cyberspace. Others are deceived by the mirage of anonymity; the misassumption that they can safely type cruel or hateful things while remaining undiscovered.

Sadly, this dark side to social media is increasingly prevalent, with barely a day passing without countless examples in the national papers about online abuse, trolling and even death threats being levelled at those in the public eye.

This toxicity has been especially conspicuous in the world of politics with some of my colleagues being subjected to distressing online abuse. The principal responsibility for this lies with the perpetrator themselves, but the very character of social media creates a culture which normalises that which would have once being regarded as crass, base and unacceptable.

Social networks devalue political discourse by providing an echo chamber, where certain people look only for news and opinion which confirms to their prejudices. So, they associate only with their ideological compatriots. At its worst this exaggerates resentment, outrage and dissolution which sometimes spills over into the offline world, with potentially serious and frightening consequences.

This Government has already changed the law to get tough on online abuse, but we all have a responsibility to reclaim public discourse from the perpetrators of the vulgar, the vile and the vitriolic. Displacing measured contemplation by brutalising political exchanges is not desirable nor inevitable, for there is much to learn from those with whom we disagree.