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Lindsay Hoyle: Social media's role during January 6 riots was a 'wake up call' for parliaments

SPEAKER OF THE British House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle said that the role social media played in the ‘January 6′ riots in the United States was a “wake up call” for all legislators.

Hoyle said: “If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere in theory. You’ve got to be aware that social media, of what good it is, is also bad.”

Speaking to The Journal during the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament in Dublin this week, Hoyle detailed the steps the British government has taken to combat potential attacks on politicians and the Royal Family.

A number of social media posts were used as evidence to prove that those who faced charges from the riot on Capitol Hill in January 2021 were present at the event. This month, a former ‘Proud Boys’ leader was sentenced to 22 years in prison for this role.

Similar investigations are currently ongoing in Ireland into whether a number of protesters, who demonstrated outside Leinster House last week, used social media to incite hatred of fuel violence.

Following analysis of posts conducted across multiple platforms published by The Journal this week, a number of these abusive and potentially hazardous posts still remain online.

Hoyle said the attack in the United States was one of the first times that other governments needed to assess their own stance.

He added: “The fact is that, social media built up a mob – a hate mob – that attacked their own parliament. Who would ever have thought that would happen in America?”

Hoyle said while social media platforms can inspire others in positive ways, it can also encourage the spread of hatred or threatening and abusive behavior. 

Sir Lindsay Harvey Hoyle 12 Rolling News Sir Lindsay Hoyle in Dublin this week. Rolling News

Hoyle said: “I think there is a responsibility for all social media companies to recognise[...] they also have a duty of care with what is bad on their platforms.”

During a pre-conference event, speakers of parliament shared their thoughts on how to better protect politicians from hate speech and violence. 

Between the panel and contributions from European parliament speakers, the event explored better ways to moderate online hate speech against elected representatives and how to better promote civility in public discourse.

panel Maxwell Photography (L-R) Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion, Ex-garda chief Nóirín O'Sullivan, Vice President of UCLG Carola Gunnarsson and policy researcher Hannah Phillips. Maxwell Photography

There has been growing concern over hate speech and threats of violence against elected representatives, both on and offline, which is posing a serious challenge to the functioning of democracy.

A number of attempts to try and regulate social media have been made by the European Union, most recently in the Digital Services Act which enforces stricter moderation of social media platforms.

Hoyle said that, in the United Kingdom, they monitor what is said to and against MPs on social media as the police force and parliament has recognised it “can be used for intimidation and threats”.

Fixated threats

Reports that Irish politicians have voiced calls for exclusion zones to be placed on the around the houses of the Oireachtas surfaced this week.

This came after a number of anti-immigration, politically-fringe protest groups demonstrated outside the Dáil where a number of verbal attacks took place against politicians and their staff.

Thirteen protesters were arrested and have since been charged for public order offences. 

Hoyle was a sitting MP when his party colleague Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right fundamentalist in 2016 and Speaker of the House of Commons when fellow MP David Amess was murdered by an islamic fundamentalist in 2021. 

Hoyle told The Journal: “To lose one MP was bad enough, but to lose two MPs was totally, totally the worst [thing] that could happen.

I never want to pick up a phone call to hear again, ‘An MP has just been murdered’.”

He described how the British police and the NHS work together to monitor threats to the UK parliament in an “all encompassing” approach. 

This started shortly after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 – where four suicide bombers struck the London’s transport network, killing 52 and injuring over 700 people.

the-scene-in-upper-woburn-place-today-showing-the-back-of-the-bus-july-2005-london-bombings Alamy Stock Photo (File) Damage caused to a bus as a result of a bomb during the attack in London, 2005. Alamy Stock Photo

The British Fixated Threat Assessment Centre was established in 2006 after it was found the main threats to politicians in Western Europe came from attacks by people with mental health illnesses.

The unit is unique as it is a joint-task force made up of Metropolitan police officers and the NHS. Hoyle said that it was important for the UK to lead in this field.

Hoyle said: “When people become fixated and you can begin to see the signs of that, we have a specialist unit we can refer to.”

The unit assesses and manages the risk to politicians, the royal family and other public figures from those who are determined to be obsessive by the unit.

“That can work with others, that we can bring together. It can be an all encompassing meeting [with] support from social services, mental health social workers,” Hoyle said.

“Bringing those people together to say, ‘Look, this person if becoming fixated. How do we help them?’,” he added.

Not only is it spotting what’s going on, but it’s also dealing with the problem. And that’s why it matters.”

spontaneous-vigil-for-helen-joanne-jo-cox-1974-16-june-2016-cox-was-a-british-labour-party-politician-she-was-the-member-of-parliament-mp-from-may-2015-to-her-murder-in-june-2016 Alamy Stock Photo (File) Images from a vigil for MP Jo Cox who was murdered by a terrorist in 2016. Alamy Stock Photo

Within the same year of Cox’s death, the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection branch of the Metropolitan Police established the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team.

This team coordinates with local policing units to investigate any potential threats to politicians, and reports to Hoyle directly.

british-prime-minister-boris-johnson-leader-of-the-labour-party-sir-keir-starmer-left-followed-by-speaker-of-the-house-of-commons-lindsay-lindsey-hoyle-carry-flowers-as-they-arrive-at-the-scene-wh Alamy Stock Photo (L-R) Labour Leader Keir Starmer, Ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Hoyle laying flowers for Sir David Amess in 2021. Alamy Stock Photo

Hoyle detailed that the United Kingdom has two types of threat, the extreme right and islamic fundamentalist. He added that, in both cases, self-radicalisation is what occurs.

“Beginning to think that everything that you’re reading is right, people encouraging you to carry out an act of violence, or an act of murder… Extremism is what we’ve got to deal with it and it’s a challenge for all of us.”

Hoyle said incidents, such as the terror attack at Westminster in 2017, are often conducted by lone wolves acting on their own “challenging authority”.

Because the one thing that unites these people, whether it’s the white supremacist or the Islamic terrorist, they don’t hold our values. They do not believe in the ballot box.”

“Threat, intimidation and murder. They do it by bomb, by gun, by knife, by car. Whatever method they can use to disrupt and hurt with hate.”