I sometimes think Twitter was a demonic experiment dreamed up by a misanthropic psychologist to demonstrate what happens when society breaks down. If we give people licence to say anything they want to people, at random and behind a cloak of anonymity, then we should hardly be surprised that it brings out the worst in all of us. All the insecurity, nastiness, resentment comes tumbling out as the normal social inhibitions are removed. Any left-behind, no-hoper lying in his parent’s bedroom can cock a snook at plutocratic feminists like Beyonce, or loud politicians like Kezia Dugdale. Or self-important newspaper columnists, come to that
We tend to lose our humanity on line because we start to see people there not as people, but as cyphers for things we hate or fear: cybernats, yoons, cucks, libtards. People online become like children who, as any parent knows, can be routinely cruel because they’ve not developed empathy, or a capacity for shame. I sometimes meet people who are gratuitously offensive to me online and find that they’re really rather charming and decent folk, not at all like their Twitter personas. They might even feel the same about me. But I’ve long struggled to avoid descending into the mire of foul language, reactive abuse and political sectarianism that social media encourages. And, a long term user, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to avoid abuse on Twitter is to avoid Twitter. Just say no.
Unfortunately, we can’t uninvent the internet any more than we can pass laws to make people nicer. It just doesn’t happen that way. Indeed, attempts to outlaw abuse are invariably a failure. Look at the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, currently being repealed by the Scottish parliament. Some, including the Prime Minister, appear to want to outlaw abuse on Twitter, particularly against politicians. She says it is a threat to democracy and needs to be stopped.
She is wrong. Abuse of politicians may be nasty, unnecessary and counterproductive, but is not a threat to democracy. Making it illegal would be. It would be like returning to the 18th Century laws of Seditious Libel, which made it illegal to make statements which brought “hatred and contempt” against the Queen, the government or the church, or fomented “discontent” among the populace.
Cartoonists like Martin Rowson of the Guardian – whose depiction of politicians as zombies and sewer-rats even I find offensive – would clearly be in the frame. In her Manchester speech yesterday, Mrs May condemned “Momentum trolls” for driving Blairite politicians from office. But curiously she didn’t condemn headline writers abusing judges as “Enemies of the People”, or Brexiteers abusing Remainers as “traitors and saboteurs”.
I’m sure Mrs May wouldn’t make it illegal to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of being a “vile IRA sympathiser” as so many Tories do. He finds that deeply offensive. Would it be illegal to call SNP-supporters “blood and soil nationalists” or anti-English racists? Would it be illegal for vegans to accuse meat eaters of being murderers, or angry white men to call feminists “feminazis”. Of course not. Invective has been an essential part of political debate since Cicero.
Mrs May says that there is a particular problem with abuse of women politicians, though the evidence for this is not conclusive. A Demos study of 2 million tweets in 2014 found that male politicians and celebrities suffered more online abuse than women. A Pew Research survey last year confirmed that men are as likely to experience online abuse, though women find it more upsetting. But this really isn’t to do with being male or female, left or right – it’s about all of us. You can’t ban sheer nastiness.
Of course, freedom of speech is not absolute and never has been. Threatening people with actual harm is a crime and if you do it on social media it is a breach of the peace. Hate crime against racial or sexual minorities is also illegal, as is making death threats, even against racists. There are also the civil laws on defamation. The former Respect MP, George Galloway has made a fortune from libel actions, and is currently suing the leader of Momentum, Jon Lansman, for accusing him of being an anti-semite on Twitter.
Not everyone can spend as much on lawyers as Mr Galloway. As this column has argued, much of the abuse and hate crime on social media would disappear if websites like Facebook were to honour their responsibilities as publishers and moderate posts, just as newspaper websites are required to do. But regulation can only go so far.
Some of the most damaging abuse on social media is the routine nastiness exchanged by young people on Facebook and other platforms. It’s girls or boys being told they are a freindless, ugly, useless, stupid and a waste of space. You can’t outlaw that kind of cruelty. Child psychologists are seriously worried about the effect it’s having on young minds, and it’s not just children. Anyone who goes on social media for any length of time will be exposed to soul-destroying abuse and negativity.
When the young Conservative, Sophie Warrener, tweeted before Christmas that she was happy to have a Labour supporter as her best friend, she was subject to a catalogue of abuse and hateful remarks, often from women of colour condemning “white privilege”. But it rebounded on the haters when she insisted on treated them all with civility and humour. This is what might be called passive trolling: turning the tables on the perpetrators by show-casing their nastiness. Even the left-wing columnist, Owen Jones, was moved to apologise to Sophie on behalf of the trolls, not always anonymous, who had been so offensive.
But passive trolling requires immense self-confidence and a rhino skin. Perhaps we need some sort of on-line peace and reconciliation movement to rewrite the rules of engagement on social media. Vigilantes of good manners to name and shame the trolls and show them up for what they are: cowards and creeps. Ok – that may be naïve, but in the end, good behaviour can only come from example. The law is useless here because, whatever Mrs May thinks, being unkind isn’t a crime.