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Case Studies

Threats to public figures

A spectrum of threats are faced by people in British public life – celebrities and media personalities, journalists, members of the royal family, politicians, high-profile businesspeople, and other high net-worth individuals. At the less severe end of the spectrum, it is often difficult to tell where the boundaries lie between legal and illegal behaviour. From malicious communications by the irate, ‘venting their personal frustration’, unwelcome and unwanted by the targets, the spectrum goes to harassment, threats of violence, stalking, and actual assault, to murder.

Perpetrators responsible for threats to public figures range from casual ‘trolls’ to coordinated agents of hostile states seeking to do ‘information warfare’ and cause damage to a government or society at large. That’s according to a paper by Alexander Babuta, a Research Fellow in the National Security and Resilience studies group at the defence and security think-tank RUSI; and Alex Krasodomski-Jones, of the think-tank Demos.

They suggest that close protection is only offered to a very small number of high-profile individuals in Britain, and there is a large ‘middle ground’ of individuals in public life, including most politicians, who are undoubtedly at a higher risk than general members of the public, but receive only minimal support. The paper says: “Parliamentarians, ministers and members of the royal household face a dilemma in balancing accessibility and security: they are required to engage with the public and have outward-facing public profiles, which inevitably makes them vulnerable to members of the public who may wish to do them harm.”

Before the internet, it was easier to maintain ‘a veil of secrecy’ around public figures’ private lives. Come the internet, the public can collect details about the private lives of public figures, and then share this information with a large number of potential perpetrators, the report says. While social media companies may be better placed than law enforcement to detect online activity related to stalking and attack planning, questions remain over the responsibilities and jurisdictions of technology companies in fighting crime, they say. Lack of reporting by victims and poor understanding of the threats remain barriers, they conclude.

The authors admit that such abuse or outright crime can affect people not in the public eye. But they point to how fixated individuals who pursue public figures may well turn out to have a mental disorder. They write: “Whether messages on social media, headlines in national newspapers or anger on the streets, threats which in isolation may not appear particularly severe often cause wider harm to society and democracy.”

Alex Krasodomski-Jones draws on his ‘signal and noise’ paper for Demos last year, about social media, also the title of a talk at the UK Security Expo late last year, featured in the January 2018 print issue of Professional Security magazine. The RUSI-Demos paper also points to a recent review on intimidation in public life, by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, published in March, which found that every female MP active on Twitter reported experience of online intimidation.

As for what to do, the authors suggest that the ‘4 Ps’ approach adopted by the UK’s CONTEST strategy for countering terrorism – and protect, prepare, prevent and pursue – may provide a useful framework for developing responses to the threats facing those in public life, while recognising the threats are very different.

For the full 34-page paper, download at https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/20180607_rusi_occasional_paper_personal_security_web_0.pdf.


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