Student leaders, the disabled and aspiring politicians in Galway are among those facing the anxiety of constant ‘cyber bullying’, according to locally-based senator, Lorraine Higgins.
She is currently drawing up legislation to make bullying on social media a criminal offence.
Senator Higgins – who is a qualified barrister – herself has been the victim of a barrage of abusive messages on Facebook and Twitter over the past year, some of which threatened sexual violence against her.
“It’s widespread now, and social media companies are shirking their responsibilities. Since I spoke up [about being harassed herself online], I’ve had a number of people contact me,” she told the Galway City Tribune.
“People who would be head of student groups, and one guy who is fairly disabled – they’ve been trying to undermine him and what he says, calling him a ‘cripple’.
“One girl gave me ‘screen grabs’ of what was being said about her, it was awful.
“These bullies need to be held accountable, because it is having an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people.
“I’m used to being lampooned and criticised, that goes with the job description now, but I was receiving direct threats and abusive messages and threats of sexual violence. And these were from ‘real’ Facebook profiles, not anonymous accounts,” said Senator Higgins.
She hopes to send the wording of her proposed anti-bullying legislation to Cabinet ministers next week. The draft legislation proposes that any electronic communication designed to cause serious distress or anxiety will be a criminal offence.
“I’m not trying to curtail freedom of speech. There is a big difference between that and people who feel they can say anything they want.
“In my experience, social media companies have shirked their responsibilities completely when it comes to providing a duty of care to their users. This has been made abundantly clear to me in recent days.
“Two weeks ago, I wrote to Twitter and Facebook as a result of the inordinate number of messages I received from people who have been subjected to online abuse. Among the questions I asked were: How many complaints they have received; what is the average length of time it takes to investigate a complaint and how many complaints have referred to the Garda authorities?
“To date, they have either failed, refused and or neglected to provide me with this information. Their reluctance to acknowledge any duty of care to their users is quite simply baffling,” said Senator Higgins.
Last month, Gardaí conducted a ‘sweep’ of Senator Higgins’ home in Galway following the threats, and suggested she should carry a personal alarm.
Meanwhile, the Lions Clubs across the country have launched a nationwide bullying information campaign.
Specially-commissioned information leaflets on bullying and cyber-bulling will be distributed to all houses with school-going children of vulnerable age by Lions Clubs.
Pat Connolly, Lions Suicide Prevention and Anti-Bullying Officer in Galway said: “ “School principals have been very positive about the initiative and have given the project their full support. The leaflet contains vital information for parents including advice on identifying bullying problems, dealing effectively with a bullying issue and information on public policy in relation to bullying.”