Pat Kane: The internet is not just for trolls

Nicola Sturgeon has faced sexist and misogynistic comments on social media. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Nicola Sturgeon has faced sexist and misogynistic comments on social media. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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Smartphones, social media and the internet can all be a powerful force for good in the right hands, writes Pat Kane

I’ve read the Google doc of SNP members and their abusive social media comments, pulled together by Scottish Labour. I expect there to be lists of not-indy-supporting-party members, with their relevant swear words and harsh indictments on Twitter and Facebook, circulating sometime soon.

As the old joke goes: if you have enough keywords, search engines, monkeys, typewriters, etc… But Excel Wars: The Template Strikes Back! is not much of a policy initiative to launch the brave new Scottish Labour movement, is it? (Though “movement”, as a metaphor, has potential).

But anyway: to the offensive vocabulary. In nearly 30 years of activism in and around Scottish independence, have I ever used the words “quisling” or “traitor” in relation to my political opponents? Never. Have I ever heard it? Very, very occasionally. There are shouty, manichean accusers in the SNP, of course – as viscerally furious about barriers to nationalist advance as the SWP and Labour Militants were about socialism’s prospects.

But the sheer unfairness of this is breathtaking. A dossier of Mr Angries venting on their “dumbphones” is being associated with the inspiring, encompassing, civic humanity of the independence movement, in its particular expression through the SNP membership. As a persuasion strategy – trashing by association the massive vote for steady optimism and progress that happened in May – I’ve heard better.

And as to the sexist/misogynist language of the SNP tweeters: I understand that Stuart Campbell, editor of website Wings Over Scotland, has been reposting a mild selection of the last few months’ social media hatred of Nicola Sturgeon, centring on her parentage, body shape – the usual metrics. Hopefully he’ll stop soon, as the point has already been pungently made.

So what is to be done? A lot in some directions, near to nothing in others. But let me declare myself a free speech fundamentalist to begin with. We don’t quite have as many words in Scots for “vigorous, candid public debate” as the Eskimos reputedly have for snow – but it takes only a minute for several to come to mind: stooshie, stramash, bourach, flyte, rammy, barney.

So I’m not into any mutual agreement that might lead to any kind of legislative constriction of public speech. Enough of that with the recent sectarian laws. We know we can do Scottish collectivism; let’s remember to do Scottish liberalism as well.

But for a minute, some historical perspective. We’re furiously politicking about realities and behaviours that, 30 years ago, were the dreams of science fiction writers. In 1985, apart from a few committed small magazines, pirate radio stations, or raggedly radical newspapers, the means of producing media were in large, centralising hands.

Whether it was teeming editorial floors feeding thundering paper presses, or lumbering TV cameras in cavernous studios, both required an ant heap of specialised workers to function. Serious revenue was needed too, brought in from cash sales and advertising, or a compelled licence fee.

If you wanted to express yourself to an audience beyond your friends in the pub, or the local speakers corner, you had to “join the media” – either by starting at the gofer level, or coming out of a reputed journalism college and getting an entry-level reporting job.

Dodgy celebs like me could occasionally lever themselves into opinion page slots (my first newspaper column, in 1988, was right here). But you generally had to become a “media professional” to get the chance to make media.

How much more different could it be now? I have written part of this article with my thumbs, while on a budget airline, using document software on a smartphone. If I flick around the apps on this phone, I can find tools which are direct equivalents to each chunk of the old media. Video recorder, editing suite and live broadcast facility? Camera, iMovie, Periscope. An editorial team to bounce ideas around, a newspaper archive, publishing presses? My peers on Twitter or Facebook; Google search; my Typepad blog software.

I could add more powers. The ability to make graphics, or podcasts; to navigate my way to nearly any spot in any city or town in the world; to be my own “gofer”, self-scheduling through automated services. My scarcity is the time and money to actually be a broadcast network or an editorial flow (to which crowdfunding or alternative currencies might be the start of an answer). But the potential is there.

And I find myself expressing a “media function” throughout my daily life – engaging in debates on Twitter while waiting in queues or for buses; noting or recording some scrap of value from a casual conversation; being a photojournalist almost without thinking, snapping the defining moment of the day before me.

Am I a bit tech-excessive/obsessive here? No doubt: I hold my geek hands high. But even if a significant majority only have some of these tools in their pocket, and only used a few of those, it still represents a radically different world of media in 2015. 30 years from now, what revolutions again?

The Catalan social theorist Manuel Castells has an inelegant but precise term for all this: “mass self-communication”. He has also been suggesting, since the mid-1990s, that we call ourselves a “network society”. It felt like a mildly science-fictional concept then. As we’ve become a people who gaze down, as well as around and at each other, conducting our invisible and silent interactions, “network society” now seems like our banal reality.

To ask “what kind of internet do we have?” is, I would argue, the same question as “what kind of society do we have?” The net is now – not entirely but inescapably – the very social fabric we live through.

Now, the potential for all this to fuel a world-beating version of a good society – by means of motivated networks of education and organisation, information and inspiration – is incalculable. There are so many cyber-candles lit on the Yes/Independence side that the darkness beyond them is barely worth cursing.

But we won’t be rewarded for playing small. The best internal regulator of how independence supporters should conduct all their engagements, on or offline, is the maxim “be the Scotland you wish to see”. It’s not easy to do. But we can start with our thumbs. All of us, on all sides.