MPs condemn social media companies over Chris Whitty’s death threats | Coronavirus


Social media companies have been accused of “looking away” from online death threats against officials such as Professor Chris Whitty after he became the target of violent comments on channels set up by anti-foreclosure activists and members of the far right.

Calls were made for England’s chief medical officer for police protection this week after images were released showing he was being harassed on the streets. Whitty’s home has been targeted by anti-lockdown protesters, while he and other senior government officials are vilified on social media as ‘traitors’.

MPs joined lobby groups to urge tech companies to prevent hostile languages ​​in groups containing members who insult scientists and government politicians seen as supporting blockages and vaccines.

The calls arrive the same week that Facebook, Google, Twitter and TikTok pledged to tackle abuse of women on their platforms with a radical overhaul.

One of the groups where violent language against Whitty has emerged is Guardians300, which has more than 3,600 members on the Telegram instant messaging app. The group was founded by former British Army captain Michael Stott, who has addressed anti-containment rallies in person and is trying to recruit a force of “common law gendarmes” to outnumber the police, which, according to him, is acting illegally.

The channel is broadcasting false statements by conspiracy theorists accusing Whitty of ordering drugs to be used to kill Covid-19 patients. Others have called for Whitty, Boris Johnson and the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance to be ‘sent to the gallows’.

Liberal Democrat MP and Party Home Affairs Spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “Social media companies have looked away for years and let death threats and other abuses spill over their platforms . Local police forces do not have the officers or the resources to deal with it properly. More needs to be done to protect public figures who are the targets of these threats, and those who use online platforms to incite violence must face the full force of the law. “

Under one of the many comments accusing government figures of “treason” and which then said he was liable to the death penalty, another user claiming to be a former soldier said the time would come when the police, the military and veterans would have to “decide” whether their oath was to “the people or the monarch / establishment”.

Stott has dissociated himself from the language used by some users of the channel. He told the Guardian he believed “infiltrators” who may have come from the British Army’s psychological operations wing might post comments on the Guardians300 group in an attempt to discredit what he called the group. peaceful.

He added, “We stand by the basic principles of the common law, you know, which cause no damage, injury or loss, and are honorable in your contract. So that’s our basic principle. Now sometimes things go through the net but once we see them I have actively deleted the posts just like members of the admin team but sometimes they just go through and others people comment on them.

Examples on other anti-lockdown Telegram channels included comments such as that of a user who said of former health secretary Matt Hancock: “I would love to see 20 heavily armed militias come in, neutralize the guards and hang their carcasses on the fence. “

The Telegram channel “Tommy Robinson News”, which publishes messages in support of the far-right activist and has more than 10,000 subscribers, has also become a regular call channel for the murder of Whitty and others, including Hancock .

Images of anti-lockdown activists protesting outside an address they believed to be Whitty’s home recently were shared on the channel with users calling for him to be “dragged” and “hanged”.

The latest incident involving Whitty was abused in public after other footage showed a vaccine conspiracy theorist abusing Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam and following him at the Department of Defense reception.

Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Jo Stevens said: “The hate online that has been allowed to spread unchecked for so long is having real-world consequences . Labor wants criminal penalties for tech executives who monitor repeated violations of a robust code of conduct. “

Imran Ahmed, managing director of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which monitors hate speech and has compiled a dossier on death threats made on various platforms, said: “By continuing to host organized groups like this, major technologies are active again. allowing both vile abuse of Professor Whitty as an individual and also helping to undermine faith in our collective institutions.

“These are not harmless words online. The invasion of the United States Capitol and mounting hesitation for the Covid vaccine around the world shows that when messages like these are given oxygen, it normalizes dangerous views among real people – some of whom mobilize in real world action.

“Now that they know it, Telegram must act immediately to remove these channels and ban the personalities involved.”

The Guardian asked for a response from Telegram, which has become the social media platform of choice not only for the far right, but for the more extreme end of the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movement. The relative ease with which users can register and the respect for privacy continue to be an attraction.

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