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On Monday, British newspaper The Guardian published a short article on helping to “reduce the amount of abuse faced by politicians.” In its article, The Guardian claims that the Electoral Commission says that legislation around elections should be reviewed, with new offences to be introduced. The Guardian further claims that the Electoral Commission says some electoral offences can result in an offender being disqualified from voting or from registering to vote. Such deterrents, it surmises, could be considered to stop abusive people. The Guardian summarises this by saying that the Electoral Commission says:

Banning social media trolls from voting could help reduce the amount of abuse faced by politicians.

It goes on to quote a BBC survey, which The Guardian says found 87% of MPs say they experienced abuse during the 2017 general election campaign. Only in the next paragraph does it become clear that the anonymous survey received responses from 113 out of the UK’s 650 MPs, or less than 18% of MPs. So instead of 87% of MPs saying they experienced abuse, only about 15% did.

This, on a related note, is similar to what the Electoral Commission found in its response to a call for evidence for the Committee on Standards in Public Life (PDF). The Commission says that in its survey of the 3.304 UK election candidates, 24% or 780 of which responded, it received 13 responses referencing issues of intimidation: 4 of which raised general concerns, 5 that apparently experienced first-hand intimidation and four said that others had experienced intimidation. Especially pertinent is the Commission’s remark that:

Four responses raised general concerns that intimidation had taken place, including posters being ripped down and vandalised, false allegations made over the internet and malicious statements made about candidates, but they did not provide any specific examples or details.

Interestingly enough, this is the source of The Guardian’s quote about ‘special electoral consequences’ that could ‘act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour’. But whereas The Guardian renders the quote:

In some instances electoral law does specify offences in respect of behaviour that could also amount to an offence under the general, criminal law. It may be that similar special electoral consequences could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour in relation to candidates and campaigners,

what the Electoral Commission actually writes is:

In some instances, electoral law does specify offences in respect of behaviour that could also amount to an offence under the general criminal law. This is often because electoral offences have special consequences, in that their commission could invalidate the election result and result in the person convicted losing their elected office and/or being subject to a period of disqualification from being registered as an elector, voting in an election and standing for election (section 173 RPA 1983). It may be that similar special electoral consequences could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour in relation to candidates and campaigners.

Most seriously, is that The Guardian quotes the Commission out of context, when the Commission itself, in its discussion of present law, said earlier:

(…)There is no similar offence relating to the intimidation of candidates. It may be that there is no need for such an offence as the general criminal law might be sufficient. While it is beyond the Commission’s expertise and remit to comment on the sufficiency of the general criminal law (…).

So not only is the quote manipulated, it is taken out of context and The Guardian falsely manufactures a narrative its apparent source does not support. Take this Guardian claim:

Banning social media trolls from voting could help reduce the amount of abuse faced by politicians, the election watchdog has said.

Typical internet troll making racist comments on social media. Abbott later apologised for “any offence caused.”

Nowhere in the Commission’s piece are the words ‘ban’, ‘banning’, ‘troll’ or ‘trolls’ used, nor does the Commission argue anywhere that there is the necessity for banning people from the vote. The closest it gets is the sentence quoted above that “electoral consequences could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour“. It is noteworthy, however, that none of the abuse reported by the Commission for the General Elections was online abuse, with a sizeable chunk coming from other candidates.

So while The Guardian might like to suggest it is online, anonymous trolls making a victim out of Diane Abbot online, the biggest problem is actually offline, and already covered by existing law. Do you want fake news, Guardian? Because this is how you get fake news.