Almost 500 abusive posts directed at MSPs passed to police, study shows

A pilot project assessed posts directed towards 38 MSPs and assessed if they were abusive or threatening.

The pilot programme ran from June last year to March of this year
The pilot programme ran from June last year to March of this year (Jane Barlow/PA)

A pilot programme has unveiled the level of abuse directed at MSPs with almost 500 posts passed to Police Scotland.

After the death of MP Sir David Amess, the Scottish Parliament set about ensuring the safety of elected members, including increasing their level of security.

And a programme set up last year has shown that, for the 38 participating MSPs, 461 threats were deemed serious enough to be passed to Police Scotland.

On average, each MSP was on the receiving end of 12 abusive posts which were reported to police in less than a year.

It is understood there were no direct threats during the trial period – which ran from mid-June last year to the end of March – but abuse generally centred around protected characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation and race.

In total, the tool used by Holyrood officials found almost a quarter of a million – 245,420 – online comments which met the search criteria for threatening or abusive language but, following an investigation by a security analyst, just over 8,000 were deemed to be abusive.

Some 7,661 comments were deemed abusive but did not rise above the criminal threshold.

Of those treated as abusive or threatening, the vast majority – 6,621 – were directed towards members of the SNP, while 592 were directed at Scottish Tory MSPs, 501 towards the Greens, 282 for Labour and 114 for the Lib Dems.

Most were considered “general abuse”, but 452 – the second highest category – were deemed to be of a racial or religious nature.

The majority of both the criminal or non-criminal abuse was directed towards men, but according to Holyrood’s director of operations and digital Lynsey Hamill, the picture is more “nuanced” than the figures suggest.

“Our search terms are geared towards language and phrases that are physically threatening or directed towards protected characteristics,” she said in an email to MSPs.

“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 even turning away from social media altogether.”

Ms Hamill added: “The trial has revealed the scale of online abuse directed at MSPs, including the number of posts which meet a criminal threshold for reporting. Our findings are sobering.

“Members in the trial covered all Scottish regions and all Members received abuse – albeit at differing volumes.”

With a general election expected this year, as well as controversial international incidents like the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the US election, Holyrood officials expect it to be “highly likely we will see a significant rise in online content that is concerning”.

As such, the Scottish Parliament has made the trial permanent, and will recruit a second security analyst in a bid to accommodate up to 80 MSPs.

SNP MSP Rona Mackay welcomed the seriousness with which Holyrood officials treated the safety of elected members.

“These figures show how prevalent this form of abuse is with keyboard warriors thinking it is acceptable to abuse elected members online with no consequences,” she added.

“Nobody should need to put up with any form of abuse whilst doing their job. Such abuse can have a devastating impact on people’s lives and is completely unacceptable.”

While a spokesman for the Scottish Greens said politicians should look at themselves to stem the issue.

“The scale of abuse revealed by these figures is truly shocking. Facing threats and bigotry must never be accepted as a normal part of serving in Parliament,” he said.

“It’s not just social media and sections of the press pouring fuel on this fire.

“The language used by certain politicians about other parties is quite clearly putting their colleagues in danger.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Annie Wells – who said abuse has impacted on her work – said the project “paints a stark and deeply concerning picture”.

She said: “This has also gone beyond those who hide behind anonymous social media accounts and impacted upon my work as a MSP in the past, including changing the way I went to work.

“This level of abuse should not simply be accepted as part of the job as a MSP. Everyone has a duty to call out the vile remarks directed at politicians – including misogynistic and violent threats aimed at women – and ensure we can do our jobs without living in fear.”

Martin Whitfield, Scottish Labour’s business manager, said: “We all want Parliament to be an inclusive place where anyone, no matter their background, can feel safe to represent their community.

“We support the Scottish Parliament in its efforts to ensure that online abuse never becomes ‘part of the job’.”

A Police Scotland spokeswoman said: “Police Scotland has an important role in ensuring Scotland is a safe and welcoming country for all who live and work here.

“Nobody deserves to be the target of threatening and hateful communication online and any criminality is investigated thoroughly.”