UK Electoral Commission Calls for Social Media Trolls to be Banned from Voting

Politics is a touchy subject in the UK at present, regardless of your own personal opinions and affiliations. Controversy is rife in the political landscape and with the rise of social media, voters now have unprecedented access to their elected officials and parliamentary candidates. Unfortunately, all too often this access is squandered, with genuine political discourse, discussion and debate falling to the wayside as waves of abuse and trolling take over. This is exactly what happened during the most recent election, as a BBC survey has revealed that close to 90% of MPs were exposed to abuse during the 2017 General Election.

In response, the Electoral Commission is calling on the UK Government to consider introducing into law new measures designed to tackle politically-motivated abuse, and to tighten up and update election laws in general. Included in their recommendations is the outline of a plan to ban those social media trolls who engage in serious and hurtful abuse online from voting in future UK elections.
In fairness an update of election laws may be deemed necessary, as current legislation is often regarded by many as somewhat haphazard and confusing, full of loopholes and/or omissions, and in many cases outdated. The proposed bans however are decidedly more controversial.

Drawing upon existing electoral offences which carry with them the possibility of special sanctions including but not limited to the loss of an elected office, disqualification from voting, or a ban on standing for office in the future, the Electoral Commission are seeking the application of these same sanctions in the ongoing battle against online trolls.

The commission outlined this view in a recent statement in which they stated, “It may be that similar special electoral consequences could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour in relation to candidates and campaigners.”

My worry here however is the exact criteria the commission would use to differentiate between those engaging in legitimate abuse, and those simply voicing disagreement or attempting to ignite a cordial debate. Incorrectly defining this distinction, or intentionally abusing the legislation, could lead to unjust sanctions being placed upon innocent parties who are guilty only of taking an interest in the political climate. If opposing views in general become discouraged, this would present a threat to the democratic principles on which our country is based.

The proposal was outlined by the Electoral Commission as part of evidence given to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is currently conducting an investigation into election abuse on the request of Prime Minister Theresa May.

A Downing Street spokeswoman commented, “She asked the Committee for Standards in Public Life to have a look at that and we'll see what they come back with.

“More generally, I think what she would say is that there is a clear difference between legitimate scrutiny and conduct that is fuelled by hate and personal abuse.”

While the above statement does seem to suggest that those responsible are aware that they must be careful not to punish genuine political scrutiny, I remain cautious of these plans. After all, history would suggest that if something can be abused for personal gain, somebody at least will try to do so.

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