Skip to content

Tackling online bullying

Both overt and insidious online harassment impacts many involved in rural pursuits, but the Alliance’s suggestion of an amendment to the proposed Online Safety Bill could make a big difference, says David Bean. This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of My Countryside magazine. 

Passing legislation is seldom a simple affair, even for a government with a working majority of 66. Since its introduction to the House of Commons in March 2022 the Online Safety Bill has seen three Prime Ministers, two Secretaries of State, two parliamentary sessions and a new government department, and at the time of writing is yet to reach the half-way point in the House of Lords. Other Bills, it is safe to say, have had smoother passages. 

Controversy has centred on the Bill’s implications for freedom of speech online. At its introduction, the Bill included provisions relating to material said to be “legal but harmful” to adults. It is this harmful material that social media platforms were expected to prevent – but no guidance was given on how to do this. Critics expressed concern about an inevitable chilling effect on freedom of expression, whether as a result of the rules themselves (which were to be codified after the Bill had passed) or from over-cautious implementation expected of online firms. 

Following a re-think somewhere between its second and third Prime Ministers, these provisions were modified  to apply only to content potentially harmful to children, but the debate risked over-shadowing a more thorough consideration of how the Bill might best meet its primary objective. Namely, to ensure that what is illegal offline is illegal online, and can be enforced against appropriately. 

Countryside Alliance research into mental health and, more precisely, online bullying and harassment revealed a disturbing trend that appeared disproportionately to affect people who live in rural areas and are involved in rural pursuits. Beyond direct abuse, a more insidious tactic that activist extremists have come to adopt involves targeting businesses involved in activities with which they disapprove, such as livestock farming or hosting shoots, with fake reviews. Posted on such platforms as TripAdvisor and Google Maps, their aim is to damage the victim by putting off potential customers. 

These reviews are fake because they typically make negative comments about products and services that the perpetrator has no knowledge about because, in reality, they have never so much as visited the premises. It is of course lawful and legitimate to dislike or disapprove of a business, and to express that view in normal conversation offline or on; it may be unpleasant to experience but is part and parcel of living in a free society. This tactic strays far afield of reasonable behaviour by being founded on lies. Already many cases could likely be pursued through the civil courts as libel, but we believe that the vindictiveness and duplicity of this conduct, combined with practical issues around identifying the culprit (which may be beyond the capability of a civil plaintiff), warrant bringing it into the sphere of criminal law. 

The Online Safety Bill comes tantalisingly close to offering a solution. Among its lesser purposes is an attempt to modernise the law on communications offences, and this is slated to include creating a new offence of ‘False Communications’. The trouble is, the circumstances under which an offence can be found to have been committed are tightly drawn. To rise to an offence under the Bill, first a message must “cause non-trivial psychological or physical harm”, and second, that harm must be caused “to a likely audience” – meaning someone who was intended, or could reasonably have been foreseen, to see it.

In the case of fake business reviews, it  is conceivable that the courts might find psychological harm to have been caused to a victim; under the current wording this will be left to their interpretation, and cannot be relied upon. Thornier still is  the suggestion that in order to be harmed by the content of a communication, a person must read it. Fake reviews are emphatically not addressed to the victims and indeed, perpetrators may take deliberate steps to prevent a target from encountering them so they could not seek removal. The message harms the victim by being read by others. 

Our proposed solution is to amend one clause that helps define the False Communications offence so that it can encompass both financial harms and harms to a person or organisation to which a message related, regardless of whether they were an intended recipient or not. Calling on the Government and legislators to do so is therefore our primary objective with respect to this Bill. To contact your MP and ask them to support our proposed changes, please use our simple e-lobby.

The sheer volume of amendments that have been proposed to the Online Safety Bill, and the time it has taken to progress, attest that there are issues with it beyond just this. Others include how, precisely, any regulation can be enforced against rogue users who choose to remain anonymous, and how their victims might be protected. We believe, however, that our relatively simple proposal stands to make the greatest single difference for victims of activist-motivated harassment, and especially for rural folk.

Become a member

Join the Countryside Alliance

We are the most effective campaigning organisation in the countryside.

  • life Protect our way of life
  • news Access our latest news
  • insurance Get comprehensive insurance
  • magazine Receive our magazine