Northern Ireland’s former First Minister has talked about her determination to tackle social media trolls, revealing some issued deaths threats to her as well as her children.
Arlene Foster is due to leave local politics completely and said she wants to use her experience to tackle online abuse.
She stepped down as First Minister and DUP leader earlier this year following an internal party coup against her.
“As politicians, we have to be challenged and there has to be a space for debate ¬– I’m not sure a social media platform is the best place for debate, because it is so limited in terms of the space that you have to do that, but it has become ... a place of hate, a place of abuse,” she said in an interview with Talk Radio.
Mrs. Foster claims some Twitter accounts with very small numbers of followers had been set up to attack other users.
“I feel there is a real need to stamp that [abuse] out, because I actually think it prevents some young people from getting involved in politics and getting involved in public life, which is really regrettable, especially young women, and because of that I think there is a real need to deal with it,” she said.
Mrs. Foster said she stopped engaging on Twitter herself, with her staff instead handling any engagement, because the abuse was so bad it was beginning to impact on her.
“When you read that people think you should be strung up and killed ¬– an example I’ll give you, when we [Mrs. Foster and Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill] were doing our press conferences outside during the height of Covid last year, there were some beautiful trees behind us.
“We had put up [on social media] we were doing our press conference, and someone said: ‘Nice trees behind you, you should be hanging from one’,” she said.
Mrs. Foster successfully sued TV personality Dr. Christian Jessen for libel over a tweet that wrongly claimed she had been having an affair.
She said she took the case because she “fundamentally felt that it was so wrong to make allegations about my family ... and I wasn’t prepared to accept that”.
Mrs. Foster said her children are aged between 14 and 21, and are all active on social media. She said they and her husband knew the false affair rumour was not true.
However, she said: “It [the rumour] really got into the space where it was so hurtful because people were asking questions about our relationship.
“It became really invasive in my private life and my family, which I have gone some way to protect over my years as a politician, and I felt I had to act, and that’s why I took the case,” she said.
Mrs. Foster said she wanted her children to have as normal a life as they could when she was First Minister, but that it had been tough.
She continued: “I want to use my experience and my platform to try and deal with some of these social media trolls.
“I’m glad to say most people did respect [my children’s] privacy, did allow them to do what they needed to do, but it’s when people start to send them death threats, and say that they hoped they die in a horrible way, you do have to react and you do have to protect, and the mother instinct comes out,” she said.
“I’m sure I’m not alone in that – I’m sure there are many politicians who have that said about their children. It is awful.
“I want to use my experience and my platform to try and deal with some of these social media trolls, to try and deal with [such trolls relying on] anonymity, and I noticed it when the absolutely disgraceful abuse was levelled against some of England’s footballers last week.
“I understand there are people who want to use not their own names, they want to use different names for various reasons.
“Maybe they are in a job that doesn’t allow them to express their opinion, but at the very least, the social media platforms should have their identity, because if they do overstep the line, if they give out abuse, if they issue death threats, then they should be held responsible.
“I feel very strongly about that, and at the moment the Online Harms Bill that is going through Parliament doesn’t deal with [an] anonymity point.
“I think it needs to deal with that anonymity point, and I’m going to try and speak to the Secretary of State for Culture around that issue,” said Mrs. Foster.