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by Kirsteen Paterson
17 May 2024
Online abuse of MSPs reported to police as Scottish Parliament bosses reveal 'sobering' extent of threats

Members of five parties experienced abuse but most was directed at the SNP | Alamy

Online abuse of MSPs reported to police as Scottish Parliament bosses reveal 'sobering' extent of threats

Scottish Parliament security chiefs have revealed "sobering" data showing the scale of online hate towards MSPs. 

Authorities say there was a was a "distinct trend" in racial and religious abuse and the general election is likely to make things worse. 

Four times more online abuse was directed at SNP MSPs than to all other parties combined. 

The findings come from the eight-month trial of a system aimed at pinpointing potential threats towards Scottish politicians. 

Monitoring software trained on "threatening and abusive language" across social media platforms was used to "provide early notice of potential online threats" towards MSPs. 

Authorities said as many as 461 online comments had "reached a criminal threshold and were escalated to Police Scotland for its action and follow-up". 

Parliament security bosses said the system will now become permanent and will be rolled out from the trial group of 38 MSPs to 80, covering roughly one third of members. 

It is not known which MSPs took part in the pilot, which began in June 2023 and ran until March this year.  

However, a total of 6,621 messages towards the SNP were flagged, compared with 592 for the Conservatives, 501 for the Greens, 282 for Labour and 114 for the Liberal Democrats

The Scottish Parliament Corporate Body has agreed that the system should become a standard part of security measures. 

The trial was delivered by a former Parliament Police Unit inspector on a two-year appointment to the Security Office as an information security analyst. It was set up following the death of Sir David Amess MP, who was murdered at a constituency surgery in Essex in 2021.

In a message to MSPs, Lynsey Hamill, the parliament’s director of operations and digital, said: "Our findings are sobering. 

"Members in the trial covered all Scottish regions and all members received abuse, albeit at differing volumes. 

"The trial found it is not necessarily members with seniority that get the greatest volume of abuse; sometimes there are backbench members receiving more abuse than cabinet secretaries. Racial and religious abuse is clearly a distinct trend within our recorded data. 

"Abuse and threats are usually reactive, ie, driven by the issues of the day or what members post online. Some members are circumspect about what they put on social media, others less so. Either way, online abuse must not become regarded as 'part of the job' of being an elected representative. 

"With a general election coming, it is highly likely we will see a significant rise in online content that is concerning. Similarly, geopolitical events such as the US election and the situation in Gaza will continue to drive online abuse." 

As many as 7,171 messages were of "general" abuse, 452 were of a racial or religious nature, 376 were flagged for "hateful content" and 18 were homophobic. 

Six contained intimidation, six were misogynistic, four featured a "non-criminal" threat and one was transphobic. 

While women received 568 abusive comments to the 7,542 recorded for men, those figures were said to mask a "more nuanced" picture of misogyny. 

Parliament bosses said: "Our search terms are geared towards language and phrases that are physically threatening or directed towards protected characteristics. Often, however, we'll see abuse of female MSPs that is belittling or of a personal nature, but is not necessarily physically threatening. 

"That said, we are still seeing online misogyny and that is reflected in our data. 

"Given most abuse is reactive, female MSPs have indicated that they are posting less content or avoiding certain topics, or event turning away from social media altogether."

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