Northumberland councillors told to reveal anonymous social media accounts in bid to cut vile online abuse

Councillors have been told to come clean about any anonymous social media accounts they run, in a bid to clamp down on “horrible” abuse.

By Daniel Holland
Friday, 8th July 2022, 1:23 pm
Updated Friday, 8th July 2022, 2:54 pm

The county’s elected representatives agreed at a meeting on Wednesday to formally declare their online activities after hearing harrowing tales of how malicious comments and “lies” had damaged lives.

Under a motion proposed by deputy Tory council leader Richard Wearmouth, councillors have been given up to 10 days to add details of any social media pages or accounts they edit, where it is not already clear or freely available to the public, to the local authority’s register of interests.

In a passionate speech at county hall on Wednesday afternoon, independent group councillor Anne Dale told colleagues that she had suffered online abuse since 2014 and it “destroyed my life for a while”.

Councillors have been told to declare anonymous social media accounts.

The Stocksfield and Broomhaugh representative said she had been “horrified” that it had taken so long for the issue to be tackled, asking: “Why didn’t you stop it beforehand? I have seen people hurt, badly hurt. Lies, all kinds of things spread about people that are untrue, shared, and shared, and shared.”

She added: “You had all kinds of things going through this council that were wrong, incorrect, lies, all played out on Facebook – fun. Well it was not fun and you have hurt a lot of people.

“There is no point sitting there and smiling and saying ‘it’s not me’ because we have all the records. I agree with [council leader] Coun Sanderson that it has to stop, but he could have stopped it beforehand and some of you could have stopped it beforehand because you knew what was going on.”

Labour councillor Mary Murphy and Tory Paul Ezhilchelvan warned it would be impossible to police whether councillors had anonymous accounts, to which Coun Wearmouth replied that the system would rely on members being honest.

He added: “If they don’t then so be it on them and if they slip up and accidentally stick their name on when they are at home drunk at night and reveal themselves to the public, then woe betide them because they can then be taken through the standards process.”

Labour opposition leader Scott Dickinson revealed that he had evidence of councillors in the room on Wednesday running “appalling” blogs going back several years and that nothing was done to stop them.

He said: “If someone is running a blog like that they are not going to take it down, because they do not care about what it does to you Glen, about what it does to me, what it does to my family and my parents who read it.”

Lib Dem Jeff Reid agreed that something had to be done to put a stop to “spiteful, horrible” accounts, but asked for the proposal to instead be referred to the authority’s standards committee for detailed consideration.

Council leader Glen Sanderson had earlier told Wednesday’s meeting that a “zero tolerance” attitude to online abuse was needed, adding: “It is not just aimed at one particular person you want to get at. We have to remember that family members, wives, sons, daughters, relatives, are greatly affected by things people say about them on social media. I don’t have to remind you how many people have committed suicide because of abuse of social media.”

The social media proposal was added to a resolution to amend the council’s code of conduct to make councillors disclose membership of various organisations, including the freemasons, following a previous debate in May.