SNP MSPs have been the main target of abusive comments online compared to other parties over the last nine months, a Scottish Parliament monitoring service has found.

Between the middle of last June last year and the end of March, the trial service found SNP MSPs received 6621 abusive comments compared to 562 directed at Conservative MSPs – the next party down – which equates to a 168% difference.

It is understood comments aimed at former first minister Humza Yousaf have contributed to the figure being so high.

Following the murder of Conservative MP David Amess in 2021, the Scottish Parliament initiated a review of personal security provision for MSPs and staff and subsequently launched a trial service to manage online threats against members.

Lynsey Hamill, the Parliament’s director of operations and digital, said the findings of the trial have been “sobering”, with racial and religious abuse cited as a “distinct trend”.

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It has been confirmed the service will now be made permanent at a cost of £125,000 a year, which will cover two information security analysts and software licences.

A total of 38 MSPs opted in to have comments directed at them on social media analysed by a former Parliament police unit inspector.

The trial found 8122 comments that were deemed to be abusive during the nine and a half month period, with 461 found to be potentially criminal and escalated to Police Scotland.

On average, each MSP was on the receiving end of 12 abusive posts which were reported to police in less than a year.

Alongside those aimed at SNP and Conservative politicians, 501 were targeted at Green MSPs, 282 at Labour and 114 at LibDems.

The vast majority of comments were aimed at male MSPs at 7542, with 568 comments directed at female MSPs deemed to be abusive.

The vast majority of comments fell under the category of general abuse (7171) but the trial also picked up remarks that fell under hateful content (376), racial/religious (452) and homophobic (376).

Other comments fell under the categories of intimidation, misogyny, transphobia and threat (non-criminal).

Hamill said the trial found it was not necessarily members with seniority that get the greatest volume of abuse, with some backbench MSPs receiving more abuse than Cabinet secretaries.

She added: “Racial and religious abuse is clearly a distinct trend within our recorded data.

The National: It is understood abuse directed at Humza Yousaf has partly caused the SNP figures to be higher than other partiesIt is understood abuse directed at Humza Yousaf has partly caused the SNP figures to be higher than other parties (Image: PA)

“Abuse and threats are usually reactive, i.e. driven by issues of the day or what members post online. Some members are circumspect about what they put out on social media, others less so.  Either way, online abuse must not become regarded as ‘part of the job’ of being an elected representative.

“With a General Election coming, it is highly likely we will see a significant rise in online content that is concerning. Similarly, geopolitical events, such as the US election and the situation in Gaza, will continue to drive online abuse.”

The search terms picked up by the monitoring software are geared towards language and phrases that are physically threatening or directed towards protected characteristics, such as race and religion.

It is understood the 461 potentially criminal comments were not direct physical threats and purely related to protected characteristics.

In explaining the distinctly lower number of comments aimed at female MSPs, Hamill said the fact more female MSPs are actively avoiding using social media because of the behaviour they encounter may be a contributing factor.

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She said: “Often we’ll see abuse of female MSPs that is belittling, or of a personal nature, but is not necessarily physically threatening.

“That said, we are still seeing online misogyny and that is reflected in our data.

“Given most abuse is reactive, female MSPs have indicated that they are posting less content or avoiding certain topics, or even turning away from social media altogether.”

As the trial progressed, the security office identified “more work needs to be done” and is in the process of developing support for members where abuse or criminality has occurred.

The Parliament has said it is exploring mental health first aid, what support it can reasonably offer members’ staff, analysis of ongoing risk to members where a crime has been committed, and more joined-up working with Police Scotland.

The Parliament is due to start recruiting for a further analyst shortly which will enable the service to be scaled up from the current 38 MSPs to around 80.