Intimidation and aggression on social media is coarsening public debate, deterring people from participating in politics and threatening our democracy, according to Prime Minister Theresa May on the100th anniversary of women achieving the vote.
In a speech to mark the centenary, May celebrated the heroism of the suffrage movement and “the enormous strides we have taken as a society”.
She noted that to ensure progress and protect democracy, social media must be a force for good in public life.
Speaking in Manchester, the birthplace and home of Emmeline Pankhurst, the Prime Minister said: “Those who fought to establish their right – my right, every woman’s right – to vote in elections, to stand for office and to take their full and rightful place in public life did so in the face of fierce opposition. They persevered in spite of all danger and discouragement because they knew their cause was right.”
“As we remember the heroic campaigners of the past, who fought to include the voices of all citizens in our public debate, we should consider what values and principles guide our conduct of that debate today.”
She added: “For while there is much to celebrate, I worry that our public debate today is coarsening. That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process.”
“In the face of what is a threat to our democracy, I believe that all of us – individuals, governments, and media old and new – must accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralist public debate for the future.”
May warned that the ideal “of a truly plural and open public debate in which everyone can take part is in danger. A tone of bitterness and aggression has entered into our public debate. Participants in local and national public life – from candidates and elected representatives to campaigners, journalists and commentators – have to contend with regular and sustained abuse.”
She noted that abuse and intimidation is disproportionately targeted at political candidates who are female, black, minority ethnic or LGBT.
“It is online where some of the most troubling behaviour now occurs… As well as being places for empowering self-expression, online platforms can become places of intimidation and abuse… This squanders the opportunity new technology affords us to drive up political engagement, and can have the perverse effect of putting off participation from those who are not prepared to tolerate the levels of abuse which exist.”
Last year the Prime Minister commissioned an investigation into intimidation in public life. Today she endorsed the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life of actions that social media companies can take to address this problem.
She said: “The social media companies themselves must now step up and set out how they will respond positively to those recommendations. So far, their response has been encouraging, and I hope they will continue in that spirit.”
Today the Prime Minister also pledged that the Government will establish a new annual internet safety transparency report to track companies’ progress in stamping out online abuse.
“As the woman at the head of our country’s government, a century after my grandmothers were first given the right to vote, my mission is clear. To build that better future for all our people, a country that works for everyone, and a democracy where every voice is heard, she explained.”