Opinion by Arlene Foster, Former First Minister and former leader of DUP

The abuse suffered by Diane Dodds MLA and her family by an anonymous twitter user over the New Year was a new low, even by Twitter standards.

Having to manage challenge and debate is what we all expect politicians and those in public life to be able to deal with.

However, when that line is overstepped into abuse and threats, then that is not acceptable.

Before I left politics I had to deal with online threats and trolling – it wasn’t easy, but I was around for a long time – a bit of a tough old girl, you may say – and if there was something I needed to report to police, I did just that.

READ MORE: Dodds to pursue social media user over tweet mocking her dead son

The trolling of my friend and former colleague Diane Dodds, however, went further than even I thought possible.

Diane and Nigel’s precious second child, Andrew, died just days short of his ninth birthday in 1998 and I know it is something that is always with both of them.

The loss of a child for those of us who are parents is just too unimaginable to think about, and for those who have lost children, no matter at what age, they will know the pain that Nigel and Diane went and still go through, on anniversaries in particular.

With all of that in mind, imagine the depravity then, of someone on Twitter who when Diane tweets New Year good wishes, decides that it is okay – funny, even – to mock Andrew’s death.

Having spoken with Diane, she tells me that the tweet went to her very core; however, she was greatly encouraged by the messages of solidarity and support she received from right across not just Northern Ireland, but the whole of the British Isles.

Sometimes even the more awful occurrence brings out the best in people.

This sort of gross indecency has to be dealt with by the social media platforms which host these abusers.

However, Twitter and Facebook are somewhat inexplicably self-regulating, and unless the post or tweet breaches their policy (set by them), they will allow it to continue.

Twitter’s initial response to all the complaints about Diane’s abuse was that the tweet had not violated their policies. After a public outcry and a lot of attention, they did then take action.

Whilst that is welcome, the action only came about because of the pressure exerted publicly.

Diane would be the first to acknowledge that the pressure came about because she is a public figure, and that if it had been someone not in the public eye, or a young person, then the reversal from Twitter would not have happened.

I could of course detail others who have been the targets of abuse and threats over the years. Female politicians seem to be a particular favourite with the trolls – Emma Little-Pengelly, Naomi Long, Nicola Mallon, Anna Lo, Carla Lockhart and Priti Patel have all had to endure abuse.

Others in the public eye, like Fiona Donohue, whose precious son died in North Belfast in 2020, has also been sickly abused for having the temerity to look for answers as to how her son died.

And of course, innocent victims of terrorism are also targeted by those still seeking to cause them pain, as if murdering their loved one was not enough.

Those of us in the public spotlight have a certain resilience built into us, but this is not the case for young people or the vulnerable who may be targeted by online trolls.

I am very concerned about the amount of bullying that occurs online, which can lead to poor mental health, and in some cases, self-harm.

Diane Dodds, like so many others before her, was abused by an anonymous account and therefore it will be difficult – but not impossible – to find the perpetrator.

If the social media companies held the details of the account holders and shared them with police when there is abuse or threats, then these people could be brought to justice for their trolling.

Twitter and Facebook could very easily deal with the issue of anonymous accounts, but they only react when their organisation is at risk of being commercially damaged.

That is not good enough. They have a duty of care to the users of their products, and therefore need to be doing much more.

Governments can do more too, and the Online Harm Bill which is currently in Westminster can and should help with better regulation.

The buck stops, however with the huge companies who could make a difference in an instant if they chose to do so.

I am determined to keep shining a light on these companies until we achieve the accountability that is needed.