Jennifer Dempsie: Online there’s plenty of stupid to go around

Has debate about Scotland's future been undermined by abusive online comments?
Has debate about Scotland's future been undermined by abusive online comments?
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‘CYBERNAT’ is fast becoming the byword for the kind of troll every political party could well do without, writes Jennifer Dempsie

Cybernat. Cybertroll. Cyberbully. Whatever you want to call it, this online behaviour is universal and is not nice. A political commentator last month referred to cybernats as “cyberscum”. I couldn’t agree more.

However, the point missed was that cybernats are from all walks of life, all parties and all areas. The world deals with cybertrolls or cyberbullies – in Scotland we deal with cybernats focussed on British or Scottish nationalism. To say this behaviour is exclusive to SNP supporters is naive.

There is also a phenomenon whereby bad things in Scotland are linked to independence, which in other places are just bad things.

We are burdening our political dialogue by the inability to see ourselves in a global context and the endless need to reduce things to a parochial animosity. This misbehaviour is a global problem with a Scottish accent.

The SNP has always worked hard to stay abreast of technology to improve its communications with the electorate. In the last two elections, it has spent a lot of time using cutting-edge social media platforms to do this and has not been shy in promoting its use of technology.

As a result, opposition parties and the media have lined up to link online nutters or “cybernat” behaviour to the SNP.

It’s ironic that trying to engage with the electorate, encourage people to vote and join in the debate via the forum that the majority of the world’s population uses – the internet – has somehow been labelled as a nasty thing when the SNP are involved. Funnily enough, I thought engaging with the public was an important part of democracy.

Many believe Barack Obama won his election because he embraced the power of social media. Using that theory, is he a cybernat, too?

It’s ironic really. Labour has a digital media strategy, the Tories have spent millions on digital communications, the Lib Dems are all over it, too. Labour even went to the effort of appointing Tom Harris MP as its Twitter “tsar” only to promptly ask him to resign after creating a spoof video comparing Adolf Hitler’s final days with Alex Salmond wanting a referendum.

And what is it with the Hitler obsession? I have lost count the amount of times in the online comment sections to my articles I have been called a Nazi or “Hitler lover” because I work for the SNP. Everyone knows the SNP enjoys a reputation of being a multi-cultural and outward looking party. Cybernat British nationalist nutters are either deliberately trying to make nasty connections or are just seriously confused.

I’ve had sexist, xenophobic, racist and just downright nasty insults thrown at me in the blogosphere because of my SNP connections. It’s disgusting. I understand that I am making myself more open to attack and abuse by putting my thoughts and fascinations out there in a public way. I don’t mind criticism – it’s good and a healthy part of democracy, but abuse isn’t.

Funnily enough, I only started writing and blogging because I was concerned that there weren’t enough female voices out there in Scottish politics. But now I understand why many don’t get involved.

Dr Mark Shephard of Strathclyde University last month hosted a discussion in the House of Commons – Discourse on Scottish Independence – Politicians versus Publics. Dr Shephard is in early stages of investigating social media comments on the Scottish independence debate to explore the nature of posts and their possible effects on behaviour.

The findings, based on analysis of online comments under articles on independence, show the vast majority of posts are anti-SNP/independence and anti-Salmond rather than anti-English/anti-union.

In terms of language, too, comments about the SNP and independence are much more vitriolic than about the union and UK.

Interestingly, Dr Shephard identifies people gravitating towards the SNP as a result of the negative attacks on Scotland/independence. For every 220 online attacks on independence, one person starts to support it.

I don’t read the online comments any more. As one fellow columnist said to me: “Reading them is the quickest path to mental health problems”.

But it is all newspapers, and media and social media forums that feel the wrath of the pro-British and independence supporting cybernats. The tendency to brand as a cybernat anyone who is online and says something they don’t like about politics is just stupid. Cybernats are people throwing around xenophobic and weird nationalist comments online, and going by Dr Shephard’s research, the pro-British cybernat nationalists are the worst. It’s a problem for all of us.

A member of the Scottish Labour for Scotland Facebook group said he wished Alex Salmond’s father would die.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie MSP was forced to apologise after a staffer posted an offensive image that depicted the First Minister in Arab dress with despicable connotations.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson become embroiled in a sectarianism row after one of her party’s staff posted song lyrics on Twitter glorifying Northern Irish terrorist group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.

After referring to deceased soldiers as child killers, one particularly sick individual was forced to quit as an SNP member.

The reality is the power of the internet is its greatest weakness; people are largely free to say what they want whether it’s sweet or savoury. And there is no easy solution to this issue, which is deterring good people from engaging via exciting new online platforms in Scottish democracy, and is lowering the tone of the debate about Scotland’s future.

But recognising that this is a wider problem for all parties to tackle, not just the SNP, would be a start.

• Jennifer Dempsie is an SNP adviser and former special adviser to First Minister Alex Salmond.