Adam Lusher — The Independent August 14, 2016
Scotland Yard is to recruit civilian volunteers to help police social media in a new £1.7 million online hate crime unit.
The volunteers – already dubbed a “thought police” by critics – will seek out and challenge social media abuse and report it to a new police “online hate crime hub”.
Documents outlining how the scheme will work appear to suggest that the use of social media savvy volunteers will help address the problem that: “The police response to online hate crime is inconsistent, primarily because police officers are not equipped to tackle it.”
A report by the London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), which will help fund the scheme, has said: “A key element is the community hub, which will work with and support community volunteers to identify, report and challenge online hate material.
“This requires full time capacity to recruit, train and manage a group of community volunteers, who are skilled in the use of social media and able to both identify and appropriately respond to inappropriate content to build the counter-narrative.”
The report suggests using the anti-racist organisation Stop Hate UK to provide the volunteers, because of its previous experience and ability to “effect speedy mobilisation in London.”
The two-year pilot scheme will cost a total of £1,730,000, with the bulk of the funding coming from MOPAC and the Metropolitan Police, supported by £453,756 from the Home Office in the form of a Police Innovation Fund Grant.
The initiative comes after a spike in racism following the EU referendum that saw a 57 per cent increase in hate crime reported to the police and included social media users receiving such messages as “go home black b*tch – we voted leave, time to make Britain great again by getting rid of u blacks, Asians and immigrants.”
Prominent figures also received abuse, including the Remain-supporting black London MP David Lammy who called police after reportedly receiving a death threat via social media. In one message he was reportedly told “I hope your kids get cancer and die” and “I wish you the same fate as that b*tch got stab” – a reference to the Labour MP Jo Cox who was killed during the referendum campaign.
The online hate crime hub also comes after John Nimmo, 28, from South Shields, Tyne and Wear, was told last month that he faces jail for sending threatening emails to the MP Luciana Berger showing a picture of a large knife and telling her “watch your back Jewish scum”.
The scheme is also being piloted after a report by the Tell Mama organisation – which had been due to be unveiled by Ms Cox before she was killed – found that social media was being used as a platform for calls for violence against Muslims.
Tell Mama said it had received reports of 364 “flagrant” incidents of online hate speech, harassment and threats in 2015 and said these amounted to “only a small fraction of the anti-Muslim hate on social media platforms.”
But the online hate crime hub, which will be led by a Detective Inspector with the help of four other Scotland Yard detectives, has already been criticised by freedom of speech campaigners as a form of “thought police.”
The Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told the Mail on Sunday: “We want more police on the street, not thought police.
“Online bullying is an increasingly serious problem, but police should not be proactively seeking cases like these and turning themselves into chatroom moderators.
“With such measures, even if well intentioned, there is a real danger of undermining our very precious freedom of speech.”
Andrew Allison, from the Freedom Association libertarian group, added: “There’s a risk of online vigilantism, where people who are offended by the least thing will have a licence to report it to the police.”
Critics also pointed to cases where the Police appear to have been heavy-handed in dealing with online comments. In one of the more spectacular examples, in 2010 Paul Chambers was arrested under the Terrorism Act and convicted of sending a menacing message after joking on twitter that he would blow an airport “sky high” if it remained closed by heavy snowfall and stopped him travelling to see his girlfriend.
It took Mr Chambers two years and an appeal to the High Court before his conviction was quashed.