Former First Minister recounts hurt at false rumours over her marriage

Northern Ireland’s former First Minister has talked about her determination to tackle social media trolls, revealing some issued deaths threats to her as well as her children.

Arlene Foster is due to leave local politics completely and said she wants to use her experience to tackle online abuse.

She stepped down as First Minister and DUP leader earlier this year following an internal party coup against her.

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“As politicians we have to be challenged and there has to be a space for debate, I’m not sure social media platforms is the best place for debate because it is so limited in terms of the space that you have to do that but it has become … a place of hate, a place of abuse,” she said in an interview with Talk Radio.

Mrs Foster claims some Twitter accounts with very small numbers of followers had been set up to attack other users.

“I feel there is a real need to stamp that out because I actually think it prevents some young people from getting involved in politics and getting involved in public life, which is really regrettable, especially young women, and because of that I think there is a real need to deal with it,” she said.

Mrs Foster said she stopped engaging on Twitter herself, with her staff instead handling engagement because the abuse was so bad it was beginning to impact on her.

“When you read that people think you should be strung up and killed, an example I’ll give you, when we (Mrs Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill) were doing our press conferences outside during the height of Covid last year, there were some beautiful trees behind us, we had put up we were doing our press conference and someone said ‘nice trees behind you, you should be hanging from one’,” she said.

Dr Christian Jessen
Mrs Foster successfully sued TV personality Dr Christian Jessen for libel (Ian West/PA)

Mrs Foster successfully sued TV personality Dr Christian Jessen for libel over a tweet that wrongly claimed she had been having an affair.

She said she took the case because she “fundamentally felt that it was so wrong to make allegations about my family … and I wasn’t prepared to accept that.”

Mrs Foster said her children are aged between 14 and 21, and are all active on social media.

She said they and her husband knew the false affair rumour was not true.

“But it really got into the space where it was so hurtful because people were asking questions about our relationship … it became really invasive in my private life and my family, which I have gone some way to protect over my years as a politician, and I felt I had to act and that’s why I took the case,” she said.

Mrs Foster said she wanted her children to have as normal a life as they could when she was First Minister, but that it had been tough.

“I want to use my experience and my platform to try and deal with some of these social media trolls, to try and deal with that piece on anonymity

“I’m glad to say most people did respect their privacy, did allow them to do what they needed to do, but it’s when people start to send them death threats, and say that they hoped they die in a horrible way, you do have to react and you do have to protect, and the mother instinct comes out,” she said.

“I’m sure I’m not alone in that, I’m sure there are many politicians who have that said about their children … it is awful.

“I want to use my experience and my platform to try and deal with some of these social media trolls, to try and deal with that piece on anonymity and I noticed it when the absolutely disgraceful abuse was levelled against some of England’s footballers last week.

“I understand there are people who want to use not their own names, they want to use different names for various reasons, maybe they are in a job that doesn’t allow them to express their opinion, but at the very least, the social media platforms should have their identity because if they do overstep the line, if they give out abuse, if they issue death threats, then they should be held responsible.

“I feel very strongly about that and at the moment the online harm bill that is going through parliament doesn’t deal with anonymity point, I think it needs to deal with that anonymity point and I’m going to try and speak to the Secretary of State for Culture around that issue.”