LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May will urge companies, lawmakers, and other Britons on Tuesday to fight to stop the “coarsening” of political debate, using the centenary of women winning the vote to highlight modern-day online abuse.
In a speech in the northern English city of Manchester, the birthplace, and home of Emmeline Pankhurst who led Britain’s suffragette movement, May will announce government measures to make sure social media firms are stamping out offensive content.
It’s a favoured refrain for May, who is under pressure from her Conservatives to set an agenda to revive their electoral fortunes and drown out divisions over Brexit as she enters possibly the most difficult phase of talks with the European Union.
“Those who fought to establish their right – my right, every woman’s right – to vote in elections, to stand for office and to take their full and rightful place in public life did so in the face of fierce opposition. They persevered in spite of all danger and discouragement because they knew their cause was right,” she will say, according to excerpts of the speech.
“As we remember the heroic campaigners of the past, who fought to include the voices of all citizens in our public debate, we should consider what values and principles guide our conduct of that debate today.”
May, a former interior minister, will say her government will create an annual internet safety transparency report to track progress in stamping out online abuse, publish a safety strategy and review legislation, drafted before social media, to ensure it can deal with offensive online communications.
Her measures will sit alongside a commitment from the minister for women and equalities, Amber Rudd, to offer 2.5 million pounds ($3.5 million) for schemes to increase women’s participation in political and public life.
As in many other countries, social media outlets in Britain are home to passionate debates – not least over the vote to leave the EU – which sometimes spill over into cat-calling and abuse. Some lawmakers have received death threats.
Many of the suffragettes, who with the Representation of the People Act in 1918 won the vote for women over the age of 30 and “of property”, received hate mail. Some were imprisoned or hurt, and some were killed, during their protests.
“For while there is much to celebrate, I worry that our public debate today is coarsening. That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process,” May will say.