16 Jun 2024

Social media ‘part of the problem’ in undermining politician security, says former MP


Labour peer Lord Cashman apologised this weekend for calling candidate Rosie Duffield “frit or lazy” after she pulled out of a local hustings citing safety concerns. The candidate for Canterbury is not the only politician to fear for her security, with a number of attacks on MPs across Europe in recent months.

Conservative MP Mike Freer decided to not run for re-election after receiving abuse, including death threats and a suspected arson attack on his constituency office a few months ago. Cathy Newman asked him if he thought social media was to blame.

Mike Freer: Social media in my view is part of the problem in terms of, there’s been some debate about some of the threats to members of parliament and that’s happening across Europe. I think that’s partly because you’re getting your views in a much more of a bite-sized chunk. You don’t necessarily cross-reference that view to see if there are other viewpoints, but also the algorithms tend to feed that narrative. Once you start going down one particular route, the algorithms start feeding it. So I do think we’re finding people who are not getting a balanced view on what’s going on.

Cathy Newman: But governments around the world haven’t really been able to put big tech back in its box, have they?

Mike Freer: No. We’ve made some good attempts here, we think, like the online safety bill but the big problem is that, partly it’s because so many of these sites are hosted in the States and their freedom of speech rules are very strong or very weak, depending on your point of view. But equally, they’re not responsive and so, I’d make complaints, and nothing happens and so that’s part of the problem.

Cathy Newman: You’re not standing because of your fears for your safety, but what are politicians telling you about what they fear now, how it is on the campaign trail now?

Mike Freer: Especially on the doorsteps we don’t feel particularly threatened because broadly speaking, people don’t know where we are. I think where politicians tend to be more at risk is when we are in a known place. So certainly I think the role of hustings, I wouldn’t if I’d been standing in, I certainly wouldn’t have done fixed hustings like we used to do, because where people know where you’ve going to be at a certain time, I think that’s where you have more risk. Broadly speaking, if you’re just going up and down streets, not quite at random but without a lot of advance warning to people, you’re probably okay as long as you have your wits about you. You never know what’s around the corner.

Cathy Newman: You had bodyguards, you had stab proof vests, you had your home reinforced. What was the moment at which you decided enough is enough, I can’t do this anymore?

Mike Freer: It was the arson attack on Christmas Eve. So after Ali Harbi Ali, the man who went on to kill Sir David Amess, came to me first and purely by chance, I wasn’t in Finchley as planned on that Friday when he came and he told police he’d come to Finchley with the intention of harming me. My husband and I had long conversations and said he was very unhappy but had said very much, it’s your decision, but was clearly not happy about it. But after the arson attacks, it basically was, well you’re done. He said, I don’t really care what the motivation is,if you’re dead, you’re dead, the motivation is no comfort, and so that was the turning point. Members of parliament do need to have conversations with their families before they go and seek election, because it’s getting worse and it’s not getting any easier.