September 11, 2019 - 8:34am

I was disappointed to see my MP, Labour’s Diane Abbott, claiming to have reported Alan Sugar to the Twitter bosses for being repeatedly nasty about her online. This has always struck me as the adult equivalent of telling on someone — the aim is to silence the person once and for all by having them reprimanded or removed from Twitter altogether.

Diane Abbott in July (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

As victims of online abuse go, Diane Abbott is probably the world-record holder. She gets an inordinate amount of disgusting racist and sexist abuse. It’s also true that Lord Sugar seems to have a rather pathetic obsession with the Labour MP, posting stupid poems about her shacking up with Corbyn and cracking jokes about her mathematical abilities.

I know what it’s like to feel the sting of online attacks — one otherwise mild-mannered librarian seemed to be able to tweet unpleasant things at me on the hour every hour.

I once had a Welsh nationalist create a blog entirely devoted to figuring out if my fluctuating weight were proof of a pregnancy, or if I was trying to ‘uglify’ myself by wearing my glasses on television. But if Twitter is supposed to intervene every time someone says something a little unpleasant, we’d all be in trouble. Abbott and her supporters claim that Sugar’s repeated abuse signals a racist-and-or-sexist motive, and therefore Twitter bosses have a duty to step in and give him a talking to.

But this isn’t right. You don’t have to be a free-speech absolutist like me to know that reporting people on Twitter for being mean looks like you’re simply silencing things you don’t want to read. Abbott defended her decision by pointing to Sugar’s ‘sexist poetry’ — but encouraging women to squeal to the authorities in order to shut a man up isn’t exactly a glowing picture of female empowerment. And at a time when MPs are looking more insulated and more terrified of scrutiny than ever before, getting someone penalised for criticising you — yes, even a millionaire like Sugar — isn’t a good look. 

If we want social media to be a better place (and lord knows it needs to be), we should encourage a culture of open debate. That means thinking twice before tweeting inane nonsense about people we don’t like – but, more importantly, it means taking freedom of speech seriously. There’s no way we can promote a genuinely democratic, open space for public discourse if even our elected representatives are inviting big tech bosses to police our interactions.

Ella Whelan is a freelance journalist, commentator and author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.