Today, Westminster will be united in offering tributes to Southend MP Sir David Amess, who was murdered during a constituency surgery last Friday. A statement released by Amess’ family yesterday praised the 69-year-old as “a man of peace”, and highlighted his campaign for Southend to be granted city status and a funding drive for a statue of Dame Vera Lynn as ways for the public to celebrate his memory.
This afternoon, the prime minister will move a motion to adjourn the Commons and allow MPs from all parties to share their condolences and memories, before speaker Lindsay Hoyle leads a procession to a service of remembrance at St Margaret’s church.
Meanwhile, both the formal investigation and the search for a broader understanding of what’s behind the brutal slaying of the MP continue apace.
At present, one suspect is in custody. What’s known for certain is that Ali Harbi Ali was arrested on suspicion of murder, but is now detained under terror legislation, and police have spent the weekend searching three addresses in London. Ali is a British national with Somali heritage, and reports in the Times today have revealed he is the son of Harbi Ali Kullane, a former media advisor to the prime minister of Somalia. Whitehall sources have alleged that Ali had been referred to Prevent, the government’s counter-extremism programme, but didn’t appear to be known to MI5.
Ali’s motives are still unknown. Today’s Sun quoted a source alleging he was radicalised online by watching videos of British Islamist Anjem Choudary. The Times has suggested that Amess’ connections to Qatar, a country with deep political and financial ties to Somalia, could have been the reason he was targeted. But the Telegraph reports that Ali had considered attacking other MPs as well, and there was no personal or particular reason why Amess was the eventual victim – he just happened to be a politician. As yet, we can’t say for certain what led to his murder.
The social dilemma.
In the absence of certainty, the discourse machine has turned its attention to the abuse of MPs on social media. During a media round, Priti Patel was questioned on whether she’d ban anonymity on social media, and numerous MPs were quoted in the Sunday papers about their experiences of threats and harassment.
It was notable, however, that nobody thought to speak to Diane Abbott (who received almost half of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs before the 2017 election) or Jeremy Corbyn (whose photo was used for target practice by a British parachute regiment in Kabul, and who, along with Sadiq Khan, was an intended target of the Finsbury Park attacker Darren Osborne) about their experiences of abuse, or how they might relate to being monstered by the national press.
It’s not as if there’s a neat line dividing online conduct and real-life threat either. I remember being startled when, in 2018, a CNN journalist emailed to let me know that a guy who’d sent me menacing tweets that I’d barely glanced at had been arrested for sending pipe bombs to various people and organisations in the US (luckily, the stingy bastard was too cheap for international postage). But while anonymity may facilitate some online abuse, it’s not its root cause.
Even if anonymity were to be shelved, it wouldn’t change the fact that the profit model of social media giants relies on antagonising their users enough to make them addicted to these platforms. Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistleblower, recently gave testimony before a US Senate subcommittee that the company was perfectly aware of the problems associated with its apps (including hate speech, misinformation and mental health issues).
What’s more, the content on social media exists in a complex relationship with what’s going on in legacy media, driven by gaps in reporting and disproportionate and inflammatory coverage. Far right accounts are just as likely to share an Islamophobic headline from a national newspaper as they are a homemade boomer meme.
We don’t yet know what role, if any, social media played in the murder of Sir David Amess. But blaming the trolls and bemoaning the loss of civility in politics is an easy way of avoiding the knottier problems of security, radicalisation, the failures of Prevent, and the potential role of social isolation or mental health issues.
Social media has a way of making unwieldy and interconnected problems feel tangible and simple. We should be wary of false certainty in moments of crisis.
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.
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