Hundreds of abusive posts directed at MSPs passed to police

A pilot scheme identified 7,661 abusive comments, of which 461 were deemed potentially criminal

Holyrood is to spend £125,000 a year monitoring online threats against MSPs after a pilot scheme saw almost 500 abusive posts reported to the police in the space of just ten months.

The Scottish Parliament initiated a review of security provision following the death of Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP, who was stabbed 21 times by a terrorist at a constituency surgery in 2021.

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This led to a trial programme monitoring online threats, which was set up last year and involved 38 MSPs. It identified 7,661 abusive comments, of which 461 were deemed potentially criminal and referred to Police Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament building in EdinburghThe Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh
The Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh

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

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 race and religion.

SNP politicians received the vast majority of the abuse, with 6,621 comments logged, compared to 592 against Conservatives, 501 against Greens, 282 against Labour MSPs, and 114 against Liberal Democrats.

It is understood the high level of abuse directed towards Humza Yousaf, the former first minister, was a major factor in the SNP data.

A total of 7,542 of the abusive comments were directed towards male politicians, compared to 568 against women. Most were considered “general abuse”, but 452 – the second highest category – were deemed to be of a racial or religious nature.

Lynsey Hamill, the Scottish Parliament’s director of operations and digital, said the findings were “sobering”. In an email to MSPs, she added: “While our data shows most online abuse was directed at male MSPs, in reality, the picture is more nuanced.

“Our search terms are geared towards language and phrases that are physically threatening or directed towards protected characteristics. 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.

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“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 said making the social media monitoring service permanent “will enable [the] security office to dovetail its physical and online work, bringing a holistic approach to members’ safety and security”.

She said: “This represents an investment of £125,000 per annum, covering two information security analysts and software licences. We will shortly commence a recruitment exercise for a further information security analyst to enable us to scale up the service from the current 38 MSPs to around 80 members, based on our expectation of demand.”

SNP MSP Rona Mackay said the figures showed “how prevalent this form of abuse is, with keyboard warriors thinking it is acceptable to abuse elected members online with no consequences”. She said: "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."

Conservative MSP Annie Wells said: “This pilot project paints a stark and deeply concerning picture about the scale of abuse MSPs are having to deal with. Since being elected eight years ago, I have repeatedly suffered abuse online, some of which has been beyond the pale.

“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.”

Labour MSP Martin Whitfield said the analysis showed MSPs “are subject to violent threats on a daily basis, with many experiencing racial or homophobic abuse”.

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He 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’.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “There's been a rise in abuse against politicians from across the political spectrum, with MSPs and their staff having to deal with threats and intimidating online posts. Having to report incidents to the police has become depressingly common.

“Tragedies like that of David Amess illustrate the very worst of that behaviour and what can happen when it is left unchecked. Everyone has a right to their own political views, but not a right to violence and hatred.

“I hope that as we move forward, we find space for positive consensus that helps to make a difference to peoples’ lives, and that where there is disagreement, we express it in a way that is as respectful as it is robust.”

A Scottish Greens spokesperson said: “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. 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.

“We’re thankful that the Scottish Parliament and police are taking this seriously and working pro-actively to keep elected representatives, their staff and constituents safe.”



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