Dani Garavelli: We’re twits if we take trolls seriously

By cracking down on abusive 'cybernat' party members is Nicola Sturgeon allowing a certain section of the media to set the agenda? Picture: Jane Barlow
By cracking down on abusive 'cybernat' party members is Nicola Sturgeon allowing a certain section of the media to set the agenda? Picture: Jane Barlow
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CALL me a traitor if you like – it wouldn’t be the first time – but there are days I find myself overwhelmed with frustration at the spread of bampottery in Scotland. It’s nine months since the referendum, we have a UK Tory government waging war on our poorest, terrorists massacring people on beaches, and still the debate on social media seems to be dominated by endless finger-pointing over who said what to whom in some tweet that would have passed most of us by if all those offended by it hadn’t retweeted it 100 times to underline just how offended they were.

Sure, there are some insults that can’t be overlooked – anything racist, misogynistic or homophobic – but rising to the bait every time someone expresses an opinion you disagree with in terms you don’t like is a waste of energy that could be directed elsewhere. If you are the type of person who is prone to provocative statements of your own, it also leaves you open to accusations of hypocrisy.

When it comes to the issue of trolling, Sturgeon is already leading by example

Last week was the perfect example. Every time I logged on to Twitter, my timeline was chock-full of people weighing in on the altercation between JK Rowling and Iain McWhirter over whether the last traces of anti-Englishness had been expunged from the SNP. This is a fair topic for discussion, I suppose, though you might think the ethnic vs civic nationalism debate had been fully explored in the run-up to the vote. But it’s the relentless offence-giving and offence-taking, the whataboutery and self-delusion, the bickering over which side has behaved the most heinously that goes along with it that’s so wearing. Sometimes it just seems to be trolls feeding trolls feeding trolls, until you have to ask yourself: who’s zooming who? And to wonder if those shouting most loudly for it to stop aren’t the ones who are getting the biggest kick out of it.

When it comes to hypocrisy, however, you’d have to go some to beat The Daily Mail and its campaign to expose the “cybernats”. The idea that a newspaper that trolls the nation on a daily basis should assume responsibility for policing the political discourse is as ludicrous as it is high-handed. As for insisting Nicola Sturgeon unfollow – and even strike off – party members it has identified as offenders, well, the words “pot” and “kettle” spring to mind. I see offensive comments underneath Mail stories all the time: when is the paper going to tell readers who spout bile to stop engaging?

Because of this, I am conflicted about the First Minister’s decision to announce a crackdown on abusive party members in its pages. On the one hand, cybernats are a problem and it’s right she should distance the party from the worst of them. On the other, there is something discomfiting about watching her allow the Mail to set the agenda. When it comes to the issue of trolling, Sturgeon is already leading by example. Her own tweets are always well-judged and devoid of rancour, even when provoked, and when personal abuse is brought to her attention she stands against it (she was unequivocal in her support for Ruth Davidson and James Cook). It is, however, unreasonable to expect her to trawl through the accounts of the thousands of people she follows, rooting out anyone who once used the C-word. And isn’t it ironic that those who are most keen for her to do so are the very people who accuse the SNP of being authoritarian?

While it is incumbent on political parties to clearly state their opposition to personal slurs, the dangers of placing too great an emphasis on the problem is already becoming apparent. Though #Clypegate – the Scottish Labour dossier of SNP members who may, at some time or other, have expressed themselves in unsavoury terms – has rebounded on the party, spawning much hilarity from nationalists desperate to be on it, it does smack of a McCarthy-style witch-hunt. Post Charlie Hebdo, are we not all supposed to be staunch defenders of freedom of speech?

#Clypegate also highlights the most problematic aspect of any attempt to clean up social media: judging what (and who) is transgressive. What constitutes abuse is subjective; for some it’s the descent into personal insults, for others merely the expression of a sentiment they oppose.

Whether or not you are seen as a troll also seems to depend on your status, with some of the most inflammatory tweeters embraced into the fold, and others cast out to the fringes. Many cybernats and unionist ultras do engage in unedifying behaviour. But when a mainstream commentator, with tens of thousands of followers, compares the SNP conference to the Nuremberg rally, it hardly seems fair to vilify the man on the street for failing to censor his own utterances.

I think the inimitable Andrew Tickell (aka peatworrier) summed it up best on Scotland 2015 when he said: “People are twats.” They always have been, it’s just that pre-social media, party leaders weren’t expected to take responsibility for their twatishness. Exposing them, obsessing about them, engaging with them, merely lends weight to their opinions and makes us seems insular and self-absorbed. It also threatens to undo the progress the country has made in terms of increased political engagement. We should unite against those trolls who incite hatred on the basis of race, gender or sexuality, and ignore the rest. Then maybe – finally – we can start talking about something else. That’s if anyone really wants to. «