Rural way of life under attack, as two thirds report online bullying over support for country sports

Christopher Hope
Nearly two thirds of people living in the countryside say they have been harassed online due to their support for country sports  - Countryside Alliance

Nearly two thirds of people living in the countryside say they have been harassed online due to their support for country sports and that social media companies are failing to help.

The survey of 500 people by the Countryside Alliance lays bare the degree of abuse meted out to people living in the countryside from activists.

Rural dwellers reported how activists posted photographs of their children, as well as their emails and telephone numbers, generating death threats.

Last night the Government said it would publish new guidance later this year to crack down on the abuse from so-called online "trolls" and consider whether new laws are needed.

Asked whether they had "experienced any online bullying or harassment related to your support for country sports", 62 per cent of those who replied said they had. Of those 47 per cent said it was due to their support for hunting and 32 per cent said it was linked to shooting.

More than three quarters - 78 per cent - reported that online bullying or harassment had worsened over the past year.

Eight out of 10 people said social media companies like Facebook and Twitter did not do "enough to protect the expression of views related to country sports".

More than three quarters - 78 per cent - reported that online bullying or harassment had worsened over the past year Credit: ALAMY

One respondent told the alliance how their "pictures have been manipulated and posted on social media, pictures of my front door and children have been put online with comments calling me a paedophile." 

Another said: "I had a really bad experience last winter with regard to the hunting debate. I was called a criminal a murderer and likened to a paedophile. "

A third respondent said: "These anti-hunting people can be violent, aggressive and downright cruel. I also had a threat to my property and my three beautiful Labradors, one of which is a rescue dog."

Nearly half of those replying to the survey said they had changed their behaviour on social media as a result of bullying or harassment, including blocking individuals, engaging less often with posts or not uploading pictures.

Others had deleted all their social media accounts, creating a second social media presence where it was 'safe" to discuss support for hunting and shooting, and changing or removing their names to make it harder to be identified.

Asked about the nature of the abuse, people said they had received death threats in online forums, had their addresses and number plate details shared online and that social media had been used to generate emails and telephone calls to people's employers trying to lose them their jobs.

Sarah Lee, head of policy at the Countryside Alliance, said: “The online bullying of rural communities who support country sports continues to grow year on year and has become more aggressive and antagonistic.

Ministers are currently considering a new law to force social media companies to follow a new code of conduct Credit: Lee Thomas

"When we first raised the issue last year we asked social media platforms to take action and to understand the serious nature of animal rights extremists online. We were met with platitudes that they take all forms of bullying seriously, yet our survey results tell a different story.

"The Government and social media platforms need to act now to reassure country sports supporters that content on platforms is policed properly and all forms of abuse are taken seriously no matter which community is targeted."

Simon Hart, the Conservative MP and a former chief executive of the alliance, added: "These results show the extent to which online bullying is a problem and one that has no geographical limits. However the net is closing on these people."

Ministers are currently considering a new law to force social media companies to follow a new code of conduct and report evidence of wrongdoing, while also considering whether the law is "fit for purpose" in tackling online abusive communications.

Mr Hart added: "The days of mindless trolls who think this sort of stuff is either acceptable or effective are numbered. It won’t be long before we find out if they are as brave when the police come knocking at the door as they are pressing their send buttons.” 

A Government spokesman said: "We've proposed a social media code of practice which sets clear responsibilities for industry to tackle bullying on their platforms and improve support for users.

“And we are currently developing new world-leading laws to address the full range of online harms and make the UK the safest place to be online.”