Editorial 213: More to be done on online abuse

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The results of the investigation, published by The Saint today, into seven students facing disciplinary measures from the University over threats made within a Facebook group chat, prove that that there is still much to be done on the issue of online abuse.

The two complainants, Student X and Student Y, were informed of a series of explicit, violent threats made against them and lived in a state of fear and distress in the two months between first reporting the threats and the final action taken by the University. Both students still say that they do not feel entirely safe or comfortable in St Andrews. While it is clear the University followed their own disciplinary procedures to the fullest extent and made great effort to ensure the safety of both complainants, including by offering them temporary accommodation, it is also clear that the complainants have been failed, given that they continue to fear for their safety in St Andrews.

This is a town and institution which has often prided itself on the close-knit nature of the community — where you can walk down Market Street and chat to several different friends along the way. However, what happens when this walk becomes something to fear? Not a fear that it might make you five minutes late to a tutorial — but a fear for your very physical and mental wellbeing.

Some might say we are exaggerating the threat and the feelings of the complainants, to this we argue that online abuse should be taken far more seriously than is currently the case. Sadly, it is a phenomenon that is all too prominent in our society today — people (especially women) are mercilessly hounded and threatened by ‘trolls’ over social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, with little help or reassurance from either the web giants themselves, or the police whose duty it is to protect us from such violence.

Some progress in how the law deals with online abuse is being made. Earlier this year a man was sentenced to two years in prison for threatening the Labour MP Luciana Berger online.

These efforts should be welcomed, but it is undeniable that our attitudes towards the seriousness of online abuse, if not the law itself, must change.

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