People find abuse more acceptable when it is directed against politicians

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People find abuse more acceptable when it is directed against politicians

Michael Gove with police protection after the Brexit debate, 2019 (Credit: Homer Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo)

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A new opinion survey has found that people think threatening or insulting behavior is more acceptable when directed at politicians than at ordinary citizens.

The Electoral Commission surveyed 6,000 people in the UK in February this year as part of its annual public opinion tracker. The full results will be published in June.

For most age groups, intimidating behavior – such as mocking or posting offensive comments on social media, using ‘foul language’, or verbally taunting or threatening in public – was found to be more acceptable when directed at a politician rather than a member of the group. public.

Mocking politicians on social media was the most acceptable behavior tested across all age groups. Around 46 percent of young people (aged 34 and under) thought this was an acceptable way of interacting with MPs, while around 10 percent thought it was acceptable to mock other members of the public online.

The research showed that younger age groups are consistently more likely than older age groups to find threatening and insulting behavior aimed at politicians acceptable. For example, 25 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds found the use of ‘foul language’ to address politicians acceptable, compared to four percent of 65 to 74-year-olds.

But all age groups saw mocking politicians in public as more acceptable than posting insulting messages about them on social media – revealing the public’s confidence to confront MPs in public, and not just online.

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With the general election scheduled for July 4, MPs across the country will be knocking on doors to campaign for votes. However, MPs and candidates are increasingly concerned about their own safety, with attacks on politicians becoming more common in recent years. Since 2015, spending to protect MPs and their staff has risen from £160,000 to over £4 million.

The recent conflict in Gaza has led to new vitriol directed against politicians. In November, Labor MP for Slough Tan Dhesi received death threats after he abstained from a Scottish National Party motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The constituency office of Labor MP for Cardiff Central, Jo Stevens, was branded ‘murderer’ in red paint, and posters saying she had ‘blood on her hands’ were stuck to the glass. Labor MP Naz Shah from Bradford West, who quit her frontline role to support a ceasefire, said she faced “threatening Islamophobic abuse” after the vote.

Many MPs are now taking extra measures – wearing stab vests and carrying alarms, for example – to protect themselves when interacting with the public.

In February, the government announced £31 million for additional security measures to keep locally elected representatives safe. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat told all MPs that the government would give police more resources, increase private sector safety provision for people at higher risk and expand cyber security advice.

Wendy Chamberlain, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and MP for North East Fife, has called for a Scotland-specific ministerial communication on election security preparedness.

She said: “This data is quite alarming to say the least, abuse towards public figures of any kind is unacceptable. Regardless of opinions and political positions, we have seen the tragedy that abuse against politicians can bring, and no one should have to suffer as a result.

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“It is also important to recognize that we as politicians have a responsibility to set an example of what treatment is acceptable. We all need to be aware of the language we use and the nature in which we act.”

Vijay Rangarajan, chief executive of the Election Commission, said: “Candidates and campaigners are the key to our democracy. People interested in serving in public office should not be deterred from running for office for fear of abuse and intimidation. We are concerned about the impact that harassment has on candidate safety and the diversity of those seeking to run for office. This has a major impact on voters’ choices.

“Now that the election campaign is starting, it is important that candidates feel safe. Debate and disagreement are an essential part of campaigning, but this can and should take place without anyone facing threats, abuse or intimidation. There is a difference between legitimate campaigns and intimidating, abusive behavior. We encourage voters and campaigners to deal with opposing views respectfully and constructively.

“To help protect candidates from harassment and abuse, we provide support during the campaign period. The Commission is working with the police on guidelines for safe campaigning, and we are ready to provide support and advice. We urge anyone who experiences abuse, threats or intimidating behavior to report it to the police.”

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