Going Underground?

Is relentless online bullying forcing your company to reduce its presence on social media and lose business as a result? New data reveals that the online bullying of shooters and field sports followers is far greater in both scale and ferocity than first thought.

Though abusive behaviour on platforms such as Facebook has been noted for some time, we only now know just how much of it goes on, thanks to a new survey conducted by the Countryside Alliance, in which 62 per cent of respondents said they had experienced bullying of some form.

This bullying goes beyond simple name-calling – the survey found that it stretches to death threats, calls to employers to try to make people lose their jobs, personal details posted publicly, and even people being hounded at home.

One respondent said: “My pictures have been manipulated and posted on social media, my front door picture has been posted on social media and my children’s pictures have been posted on social media with comments calling me a paedophile.”

Another said: “I was called a criminal, a murderer and likened to a paedophile. I found the whole experience very distressing and I am now seriously considering keeping my views to myself. These anti-hunting people can be violent, aggressive and downright cruel.”

Fox hunting (47 per cent of respondents) is the most likely activity to make you a target for abuse, followed by shooting (32 per cent). However, in some cases just living in the countryside is enough to attract bullies.

It’s not just a phenomenon that affects individuals – businesses in the gun trade stand to suffer too. The survey reported that 89 per cent of rural businesses were suffering from online abuse, in the form of social media posts, private messages or negative reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor.

Business owners are scared to complain to Facebook as they think their own pages will be removed – Facebook has extremely tight restrictions on the sale of guns through its platform. Instead, many are simply avoiding Facebook and quietly taking their businesses off social media.

“Online abuse has been a huge influence in my decision last year that my business is absolutely not

on social media at all,” said one respondent. “It is taking far longer than I think it otherwise would have to get established through word of mouth.” Others said they were removing their own names from social media pages so abusers could not link them with their businesses.

The knock-on effect of this is that the field sports community is slowly going underground, with its visibility to the wider public being vastly reduced.

Differential Treatment

It is widely acknowledged that social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter foremost among them, have a bullying problem. At the start of 2018, Facebook said it was undertaking a crackdown on bullying after the prime minister said social sites had “become places of intimidation and abuse,” and that the Law Commission would look at which new laws were needed to crack down on “offensive online communications.”

However, there is a sense that, just as with real-life policing, issues in the countryside are often ignored compared to the same issues in rural areas, and so the bullying of countrymen and women is not treated with the same urgency as, say, school bullying.

“I have received threats, incitement to violence and attempts to get my daughter expelled from college. I reported all this reported to the police – we were told we just had to put up with it,” said one respondent. “The police couldn’t have been less interested. I contacted my MP – no action. I contacted solicitors but they were reluctant to take case and warned of astronomical costs. Result: I live in isolation, don’t compete any more, don’t ride any more, don’t go out any more. Keep curtains drawn all the time and been on medication for four years. Too afraid to go out to work. Lives totally destroyed and no one cares.”

Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said: “It is a strange truth that many organisations and institutions deal entirely differently with issues in the countryside to the way they would in a town or city.

“This differential treatment was highlighted by two of the highest profile organisations in the country. Firstly the RSPCA, which has an unfortunate record of politicising rural issues, tried to question Chris White, a Derbyshire farmer and hunt master, about spurious allegations about trapping badgers made by animal rights extremists. Then the BBC accepted a heavily edited video from the same extremists and ran a news story based on those spurious allegations which included Mr White and his role as the Joint Master of the Barlow Hunt in their coverage, making him instantly identifiable.”

Since then, according to an article in the Daily Telegraph, Mr White has received dreadful abuse, including death threats and having trackers placed on his car. And all this without any evidence of a crime. The police said there was nothing to go on: “A video can be edited to show what the editors want it to show. It can distort the truth and lead to conclusions being drawn that may not reflect the reality of what has happened.”

The Countryside Alliance has now submitted a formal complaint with the BBC to ask why this video was published, given its complete lack of credibility, and why Mr White’s name was made public.

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