Threats are 'unacceptable' says Thurso councillor Mackie
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Online abuse and threats directed at the Conservative and Unionist candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and his agent reached "totally unacceptable" levels during the general election campaign, it has emerged.
Councillor Struan Mackie, who represents Thurso and Northwest Caithness on Highland Council, spoke out in the aftermath of his experience as election agent for Tory candidate Andrew Sinclair, a fellow councillor whose ward is Wick and East Caithness.
"Over the last three-and-a-bit years – essentially ever since I was selected as a parliamentary candidate – I have seen a steady rise in abuse, with its frequency and its severity increasing with every political event," Councillor Mackie said.
He said there had been some "very aggressive moments" when he stood for election in 2017 and at one point he felt threatened enough to call for police assistance while canvassing in Halkirk.
"This last election has regrettably been no different, despite acting as an election agent and not as a candidate," he said.
Councillor Mackie highlighted an experience that left him feeling despondent and quite shaken. It occurred while he was manning an information post ahead of the December 12 election along with Councillor Sinclair.
"In my home town of Thurso, in the middle of a packed High Street, a young couple doing their Christmas shopping told me to ‘go back to England’ and that I and everybody at my street stall was ‘Tory scum’, ‘out of touch’ and ‘pure evil’.
"Later that same day I was told that I had ‘betrayed my country’ and that I was 'not welcome here’."
Councillor Mackie says he has witnessed a steady increase in vitriol aimed at him that began with "anonymous keyboard warriors who hid behind fake profiles". Some, however, did not even bother hiding their identities and were "respected in the local community".
"The keyboard warrior is now so prevalent and emboldened by the easy access to politicians, now offered 24/7 by social media. At one click of a button, anybody can engage with their representatives in a way unthinkable a decade ago," he said.
Referring to his Facebook page, Councillor Mackie said: "While 50 comments were removed in 2016, over 100 were removed for the general election the year after."
He said the nature of the comments ranged from "inciting anti-British and anti-English sentiment" through to negative remarks on his appearance, height, weight and even the clothes he wore. "Ultimately, the people giving out the abuse want you to give up."
Councillor Mackie said he had canvassed for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party around inner-city Glasgow and Lanarkshire’s industrial towns and former mining communities. However, reflecting on the hostility he felt while canvassing in Halkirk two years ago, he said: "Given all of my experience, in many places where I could expect little to no support, never had I expected to feel threatened in a sleepy Caithness village.
"This was the first time that I had called the police, despite much reluctance. But it had reached a breaking point."
An anonymous email was then sent to him with a picture attached showing someone trying to burn his leaflet. "The leaflet was in an individual’s hands, with a lighter clearly burning the section with my picture. It was accompanied by a statement calling on me to do the decent thing and take my own life."
Councillor Mackie added that the abuse is not confined to Conservative representatives, though, and that "no party is left out" from comments which he says are often "shocking and horrific".
"When I decided to put up a post on my Facebook page reflecting on the last three years, I never expected the level of support I received from across far north – people of all political leanings, and none, hitting out at the keyboard warriors, the social media trolls and those delivering abuse on our streets. For that moment, social media was full of positivity and support."
He said nobody should have to put with threats, aggressive emails or abuse either on social media or in the street.
Councillor Mackie said: "How will we ever persuade people to enter politics, to help change their communities, if this is the type of treatment they can expect?
"Entering politics is something that we do to make our communities better, to deliver on the wants and needs of the people we live and work with.
"Across the political spectrum, we may disagree about how to achieve that change, but the heart is almost always in the right place."