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Council / Councillor worried online abuse could put people off standing at next election

Emma Macdonald said ‘it is important we call it out and say it’s not okay’

A COUNCILLOR believes abuse and personal insults on social media could prove to be a barrier to people putting themselves forward to stand in the next local election.

Emma Macdonald says some folk commenting online “don’t see people” when they speak about councillors.

Councillor Emma Macdonald.

The north mainland member, who is also Shetland Islands Council’s depute leader, has spoken out after being sent a screenshot of comments made about her in a private group which she said were not factual.

She said it is likely to be a vocal minority, but abusive comments could cause “real damage” to someone who might be suffering from poor mental health.

With the next local election set for 2022, there is a worry there could be a lack of candidates coming forward.

At the last election in 2017 the south mainland ward was uncontested while in two other areas there were ‘paper candidates’ put forward by the Conservative party to ensure there was a Tory box to tick on the polling papers.

Those paper candidates, in the north mainland and Lerwick north wards, only received 74 votes between them.

“One of the reasons people have expressed for not standing again or that has maybe made potential candidates not stand is the potential for putting themselves in the public eye and receiving abuse,” Macdonald said.

“Social media is a fantastic tool and we all need to embrace these ways of communicating but what they also do is open up members to comments that are at times hurtful and personal.

“I think when someone is sitting at home and is using social media to vent frustration it can come across negatively. People need to mind that councillors are people as well and we do what we do because we care about Shetland.”

The councillor said she spoke to somebody “not that long ago who said ‘why would you? Why would you want everybody slagging you off on social media’?

She added that people behind the keyboard would type things they would not say to face to face, or over the phone.

Macdonald said public scrutiny and criticism over decision-making is part of the job but personal insults are a step too far.

“Some of my colleagues have had things said about them that you just think, well, would you say that if that wasn’t what they did for a job?” she said.

“I think it’s important that we call it out and say it’s not okay.

“I think maybe with more people being at home and having more time on their hands, people have maybe found it a way to vent frustration – they maybe don’t have their usual route of being able to moan at work or something at a colleague, and they maybe use social media, and I understand that.

“But I think it’s trying to make people realise that when you’re talking about people, you’re talking about people.”

Councillor Ryan Thomson.

North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson believes things have become worse in more recent months and years, particularly when it comes to political debate.

He said online discourse has at times become “poisonous”.

All of Shetland’s 22 councillors are independent apart from the SNP’s Robbie McGregor.

“It has given trolls a fantastic opportunity to spout vile hatred toward anyone who does not conform to their own personal points of view,” Thomson said.

“Many and most seem to live and thrive in the comments sections of the local media pages, but not exclusively.

“Some of the comments towards councillors, the council, and indeed other people simply commenting on some of these stories goes far and beyond what should be classed as acceptable.

“These news outlets need to do more by way of monitoring and acting.”

Macdonald, meanwhile, is a member of a cross-party group of councillors organised by local authority body COSLA on barriers to elected office.

She said the issue of social media comments has been raised across Scotland.

The group was originally set up to encourage more women to stand in local elections.

Around 23 per cent of Shetland’s councillors are women – five out of 22 – which is slightly below the national average of 29 per cent.

“I would love to see a council chamber that is much more diverse, not just a better gender balance but the reality in Shetland is we have seen a real decline in candidates at all and this is a real concern for democracy,” Macdonald said.

“The barriers women face are the same as the barriers men face, the pay makes it difficult to give up full-time employment to become a councillor therefore it will ultimately suit someone who is older and retired much more.

“We cannot change that but we can try to aim for better civility in public life.”

Macdonald concedes she does envisage a surge of women wanting to stand in 2022.

“Which is a shame, because I have really had a great experience,” she said.

“You get judged by what you bring to the table, not what gender you are.

“I actually love [being a councillor]. I think people just see it as quite a negative thing, and it’s trying to find ways to let people know actually it can be really rewarding, it’s really varied, and you get to make a difference.”

Macdonald added that she recently took part in a national workshop on mentoring, which revolves around the idea of elected members being on hand to give advice to prospective candidates.