'I won't be silenced': Rachel Riley calls for action on trolls during Dudley visit

Rachel Riley said she refuses to be silenced by hateful internet trolls as she vowed to do all she can to root out online racists.

Countdown star Rachel Riley visited Dudley College
Countdown star Rachel Riley visited Dudley College

The Countdown star found herself at the centre of a social media storm last year after she used Twitter to highlight anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

The backlash she suffered saw her on the receiving end of abuse which peaked when she gave her support to a BBC Panorama documentary exposing failings in the party's handling of the issue.

Speaking to the Express & Star during a visit to Dudley College, Riley, said the harrowing experience had opened her eyes to the prevalence of online abuse.

"Some people don't consider themselves as racist when they are saying things that are incredibly offensive," she said.

The TV star chatted with students during her visit to Dudley College

"I was being told by Jeremy Corbyn supporters that there is no racism [in the Labour Party] while they're also calling me a Zionist shill who works for Israel and saying I'm a terrorist.

"You have to see their arguments for what they are. They are not trying to have a debate with you. They are not interested in being educated or learning anything. They are just trying to silence you and I won't let that happen."

Riley was invited to speak at the college by Dudley North MP Ian Austin, who has also suffered online abuse after he quit Labour claiming it had lurched towards extremism under its current leadership.

'If you wrestle with a pig, you are just going to get dirty'

She has joined a campaign run by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, calling for “abhorrent” comments online to be muted, reported or handed to the police.

To date Riley has blocked more than 1,500 abusive people on Twitter – a move she says is the best way to deal with trolls.

"Engaging with them just encourages them, so I block them," she says.

Rachel Riley took questions from students from Dudley College and local schools.

"If someone would say something rude to me in the street, I wouldn't accept it, so why do I need to accept it while I'm online?

"There are no rules about who I do and don't have to listen to. I'm very clear that I will carry on highlighting racism, and if anything the trolls have encouraged me to speak out more.

"I won't be silenced.

"There are now trolling manuals that are used – particularly by the far right – that teach people how to use social media to divide people and gain the maximum impact.

"We need to support each other. Women and minorities are being intimidated and shouted at a lot more than anybody else.

Rachel Riley was invited to speak at the college by Dudley North MP Ian Austin

"I've had the most tremendous support across communities and across faiths. We have to fight this from a position of unity.

"If you wrestle with a pig, you are just going to get dirty and they are going to enjoy it, so we have to be strategic and deal with it without helping them to spread their message."

'Facebook has a lot to answer for'

Riley criticised social media firms for failing to do enough to tackle online abusers. Their inaction, she says, had prompted her to support a parliamentary bill from MP Lucy Powell which aims to stop closed forums on Facebook from promoting hatred.

"The companies hide behind really poor arguments to do with freedom of speech, ignoring the fact that there are laws against inciting violence and inciting hatred, which a lot of trolls do," Riley said.

"Facebook has a lot to answer for by allowing these closed forums.

"Those kind of special interest groups are where Facebook makes a lot of its money, because the groups share their conspiratorial articles and it brings a lot of clickbait revenue.

Rachel Riley chats with Dudley College chief executive Lowell Williams

"But if you look at the Christchurch shootings, or the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre... the people committing these crimes are citing this conspiratorial stuff.

"It's not an issue that is just for social media, it is bleeding into society and we need to change the law on it."

Despite accusations to the contrary, Riley says she has no political allegiances.

"I don't want to go into politics. I keep being told that me speaking out against anti-Semitism must mean that I'm a Tory, and it must mean I'm going into politics," she said.

"I don't have a political affiliation and if anything, getting daily abuse makes me want to run a mile! It's a major problem in politics, because it is going to put women off and it is going to put ethnic minorities off.

"With people like Donald Trump getting into power it has shown the public that you can't rely on politicians to do everything for you. Brexit is another example.

"We do have to take responsibility for ourselves, which for me I suppose means being involved in the political debate without being a politician."

STEM subjects' image problem

Riley's television career has also seen her appear on Strictly Come Dancing, The Gadget Show and Friday Night Football on Sky Sports.

She is expecting her first child with former Strictly partner Pasha Kovalev and says she is looking forward to taking some time off with her first baby.

She is pushing for more young people to get involved in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – a message she was keen to get across when addressing students at Dudley College.

"Women in particular are underrepresented," she said. "There's a real image problem. People will quite happily say 'I'm rubbish at maths' with a smile on their face but would never proudly announce 'I can't read'.

"We need to have a bit more pride in our amazing scientists and mathematicians.

"You don't have to be a genius or at the very top of the class. I want young people to be confident, to explore maths and the sciences until they find their niche.

"That may give them the spark to find a career."

She says she has loved her decade as the maths whizz on Countdown, a job she landed after submitting "50 words and a photo".

But as a Manchester United fan, she says her work in football broadcasting has been "a dream come true".

"Getting to take my dad – a United fan since the age of nine – to have lunch with Sir Alex Ferguson is something I would never have dreamed of," she says.

"He's a massive hero of mine."

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