Sarah Lee: Why Facebook needs to act on the vile abuse and death threats facing countryside enthusiasts online

THE Countryside Alliance is all for freedom of expression and robust debate but when that descends into death threats, posting peoples home addresses online, and leaving false reviews about rural businesses, we knew we had to take a stand against this kind of vile abuse.

Countryside sports enthusiasts are being subjected to online abuse. What should be done?

Time and time again, we are seeing death threats and harassment campaigns targeted at those in the countryside engaged in legal activities. We were moved to act after several troubling examples were sent to us, including an individual who had been subjected to a year long campaign orchestrated by a well-known anti-hunting Facebook page, which went as far as to share personal details and contact her place of work.

If we want to tackle this revolting abuse of the country sports community then we first needed to understand the scale of the problem, how social media companies were responding and shine a light on the bullying and harassment that often goes unreported.

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Undertaking research on the issue revealed 62 per cent of respondents had experienced online bullying or harassment for supporting country sports. Our research also highlighted that online bullying of rural communities continues to grow year on year and has become more aggressive and antagonistic.

We found individuals were receiving death threats, their children’s pictures posted online, and social media being used to generate emails and telephone calls to people’s employers to try to lose them their jobs.

The impact this kind of abuse has on individuals cannot be under-estimated, often leaving people feeling vulnerable, afraid, and alone, as they were unsure how to deal with it. We were being told: “It makes me feel ill, very nasty and shocking. To be honest it is scary.”

How can social media companies and the Government continue to ignore this abuse of rural people? If this was aimed at any other community, it would not be tolerated, so why is it acceptable not to act when abuse is aimed at those who support county sports?

We have a government which is committed to making the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”, yet it is clear that those who are passionate about the countryside are still experiencing online bullying for their beliefs and lawful activities.

Part of the problem is social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are by their very nature ‘expansive’ – meaning that bullying and abusive comments on social media get far more traction and have much more of an impact than they would do if they were simply communicated verbally.

Facebook community standards that state Facebook is a ‘safe and welcoming environment” are not worth the paper they are written on. Time and time again Facebook have failed to act, with vile and abusive posts remaining online.

It is also clear that individuals feel let down by the social media companies with people telling us “I received death threats to myself, my hawks and dogs, I had to involve police in the end as Facebook ignored it” and “I received a threat to me and my family via Private Message after I commented on a post about the sad death of somebody who was on a hunt. I reported it to Facebook and the police and the police were the only ones that dealt with it. Facebook did nothing and didn’t think to respond to multiple reports I made”.

Facebook need to ask themselves why they have a greater tolerance of abuse and hate than the legal guidelines set out by the Crown Prosecution Service. We have reported many abhorrent comments to Facebook that clearly breach CPS guidelines, yet no action was taken by Facebook and many of the posts still remain online, causing significant distress to the victims.

There was one case where a death threat was made, which we reported, on this occasion the post was taken down by Facebook but only after forty eight hours – this is far too long.

When we first raised the issue last year, we asked social media platforms to take action and to understand the serious nature of animal rights extremists online. We were met with platitudes that they take all forms of bullying seriously, yet our research clearly tells a different story. We hope that by exposing and raising awareness of online abuse, that some people in rural communities face, we can begin to stamp out this behaviour.

The Government and social media platforms need to act now to reassure country sports supporters that content on platforms is policed properly and that all forms of abuse are taken seriously, no matter which community is targeted.

Everyone should feel safe when using social media and appropriate protections should be in place to prevent attacks designed to intimidate and silence. The time has come for all of those in the countryside to unite and take stand against this abuse.

Sarah Lee is Head of Policy at the Countryside Alliance.