Derry & Strabane Council to write to Twitter over anonymous trolls after ‘vile’ message sent to Diane Dodds

Derry & Strabane Council is to write to Twitter calling for greater scrutiny of anonymous online accounts following reports of a sickening comment about a Northern Ireland politician’s deceased child.

Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 6:05 pm
Diane and Nigel Dodds. File picture. PA Wire

The Council’s Governance & Strategic Planning Committee also agreed to write to the Department of Justice to explore a change in the law to make anonymous accounts more accountable.

The matter was raised by DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney at the virtual meeting on Tuesday following widespread concern over the online abusive message, which has been reported to police.

An anonymous account posted an abusive response to a photograph of former NI Economy Minister Diane Dodds, who is married to former MP Nigel Dodds, on New Years Eve.

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The Twitter troll made a reference to the couple’s son Andrew, who was born with a serious illness and died just before his ninth birthday in 1998.

Ald. Devenney initially proposed the Council write to the Department of Justice urging them to look at banning anonymous accounts.

He said: “I just wanted to raise the issue of online abuse and the vile comments that have been targeted at my colleague Diane Dodds MLA just over the holiday period. For those who maybe don’t know Diane and the family they had a son called Andrew who passed away in 1998. He was only aged eight years of age. He had been diagnosed with spina bifida and he was a much loved and cherished young boy within the family circle.

“These people who target with this online abuse many are unknown known as trolls and to me, chair, they are just spineless, vile people that can hide behind a keyboard, keyboard warriors who hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

“It’s difficult to find out who they are, and we all know from that conversation that Twitter at the moment has said that it didn’t breach its standards but we do appreciate that the PSNI are carrying out an investigation. We as politicians we take online abuse on the chin a lot of the times, but there are many others out there that are targeted with online abuse along with Diane, many others, and many of them don’t have any support and I believe we as a Committee and a Council should send out a very strong message for the Dodds family and others who have been subjected to online abuse, and should be calling for changes to the law that there is no facility for anonymity online.”

He said his party colleague Carla Lockhart is hoping to meet with representatives from UK government and Twitter this week to register concerns over abuse emanating from anonymous accounts.

“I believe the law needs to be changed in around this as well,” he said.

SDLP Councillor John Boyle said that this has been a long-standing issue. “I saw the Tweet referenced to the Dodds family and Diane in particular. That Tweet was repugnant, it bordered on sociopathic, in fact it probably was sociopathic. The very lack of empathy was quite astounding.

“I have seen so many thousands of examples of this. As Ald Devenney has already pointed out there are many hundreds of thousands of people across our country and indeed locally who are abused on a daily basis, who are threatened on a daily basis and are insulted on a daily basis.”

It is very evident, he added, that social media platforms needed to get a better grip on these matters and said he did not believe it was beyond “these multi-billion pound companies to come up with a solutions to tackle this particular problem.”

He said anonymity was clearly “being used to abuse” and that people quite often would say things they wouldn’t say in real life because of anonymity.”

He suggested the Council should consider broadening this out to write to other platforms as well.

Sinn Féin Councillor Sandra Duffy said she absolutely agreed with Ald. Devenney and that the message was “absolutely despicable”. “I have previously been on the media discussing this because I have also been a target of some hate at times. Coming up the last election I had to advise my parents not to be reading stuff on social media because it upset them so much.”

Colr. Duffy backed Ald. Devenney’s and also writing to the various social media platforms.

Ald Hilary McClintock seconded the motion.

Independent Colr. Gary Donnelly said there was “absolutely no excuse in the world to carry out this type of behaviour, it’s despicable”. He added: “Why anyone would use the death of a young child to attack the parents’ politics or whatever reason is completely and utterly wrong”.

Colr. Donnelly said like Colr Duffy, he had to talk to his children after a deluge of abuse after an attack on his home was followed by family details being put on Facebook and shared widely.

He said that this also happened at times on online newspaper accounts’ comments section.

People Before Profit Colr. Shaun Harkin said many people face such issues when in public life. “It’s not acceptable... it’s sick,” he said, but added he was reticent about calling for a ban on anonymous accounts.

Colr. Harkin said people were abused online in all sorts of ways publicly and via anonymous accounts. He added however that anonymous accounts were also vital for whistle-blowers to speak out publicly, including the #MeToo movement.

“I think we have to have a more wide-ranging discussion about how we challenge it. I do think we can send a strong message from the Council about the abuse Diane Dodds has face. That’s an important thing for us to do if we collectively say this is an unacceptable way to target any politician that will deliver a very strong message.”

Colr. Donnelly then suggested an amendment to Ald. Devenney’s motion, switching the focus to writing to Twitter rather than the department and urging them to ‘explore ways to make anonymous accounts more accountable’. This was seconded by Colr. Duffy and passed, 10 votes for to 3 against.

A slight amendment to Ald. Devenney’s original proposal whereby he replaced calling for a ban to calling on the Department of Justice to also ‘explore ways to make anonymous accounts more accountable’, also passed 12 votes for with one abstention from Colr. Donnelly.

Aontú Colr. Emmett Doyle supported both proposals, and said it was important political parties as well ensured people within their own parties were not involved in trolling activity.

“Trolling in general, people need to snap out of it and wise up a bit. If that’s what they want to spend their time doing then they need to look at their lives.”

The motion passed.

Speaking on BBC Radio’s Nolan Show on Tuesday morning, Mrs Dodds described the message she was sent as “hugely harmful and hugely hurtful and damaging”.

She said: “I think the reaction to that tweet shows that all right-thinking people were disgusted, and disbelieving that someone could do something like that.

“People who set out to do this kind of thing, set out to harm, they are malicious and they are callous.

“They set out to do it in a way strikes at the very core of your being.

“I think on this occasion they failed in that sense because the reaction to what happened was so strong.”