The pandemic has shown how much we can achieve when we come together as a nation. As we move into a post-pandemic period, we must keep that spirit alive. The spirit of kindness to our neighbours and others. Of support for the vulnerable in our communities. Of giving practical help to those in need.
But alongside the kindness, there are those who have been very unkind and even cruel, especially on social media. That unkindness is all the more damaging at a time where people have been isolated from their usual support and friendship networks. People are, by nature, sociable and we look to others for validation and identity. It’s perfectly normal to worry about what people think of us, what the neighbours might say. So it is all the more serious then when people are abused by others. There is no justification. Worse still, many of these people hurl abuse from behind a cloak of anonymity. They can never be made accountable for their actions or the hurt they cause to the victims. It’s got to stop. That’s why the Government is bringing forward an Online Harms Bill. It will bring in new laws and will require the big social media platforms to take greater action to tackle unacceptable behaviour, as well as criminal behaviour.
Like any new technology, the internet brings out some of the best and some of the worst in people. It is time to tackle the worst. There has been a rise in dangerous dissemination of self-harm and disinformation. This week there was a report about someone who posted a fake video claiming her arm was magnetic after having the vaccine. She meant it as a joke, but it was taken seriously. Even though she removed the content and posted another video explaining that it was a fake, her content has been included within other ‘anti-vaxxer’ videos and presented as true, with millions of views.
The new bill will also tackle other offences, including investment scams and ‘romance’ fraud, where people shamefully pretend to care about someone, simply to defraud them. Life savings have been lost under these sorts of scams. It’s been on the rise, with more than £60million defrauded in the last year alone. It’s cruel, deceitful – and will be criminal.
Yet beyond accountability, we need to consider the behaviour of some people. They write things that they would never say in the street or to someone’s face. I am a firm supporter of free speech. But freedom brings responsibility. Free speech about an issue and abuse about a person are not the same thing.
The spirit of kindness has shone through during the pandemic. One that reflects our enduring values and the type of community in which we want to live, online as well as in person. Now should be the time to re-set that relationship – to bring in an age of greater internet kindness and decency.