Tom Peterkin: Failure to tackle online abuse harms Scottish politics

The Twitter behaviour of politicians from across the parties can be excruciating writes Tom Peterkin
Tory MP Paul Masterton may be less enthusiastic about family tweets after his daughters preference for pink sparked an attack from a West Lothian SNP councillor.Tory MP Paul Masterton may be less enthusiastic about family tweets after his daughters preference for pink sparked an attack from a West Lothian SNP councillor.
Tory MP Paul Masterton may be less enthusiastic about family tweets after his daughters preference for pink sparked an attack from a West Lothian SNP councillor.

In the knock-about world of Scottish politics, one can become inured to the torrent of online unpleasantries that gush from the keyboards of its followers and indeed its politicians.

Such is the intensity of the cyberspew that most Holyrood watchers have developed a specially thickened hide to protect themselves against the bile and hatred pouring from keyboards up and down the land.

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This week, however, there was an exchange that caused even the most hardened devotees of Scottish politics to sit up and take notice. It was not the use of foul language or insulting epithets that caught the eye. Sadly, most people have grown used to that sort of thing.

Rather it was the comments made by an SNP councillor when a Conservative MP posted a photograph of his toddler daughter – ready for her first day at nursery – on Twitter.

In its own way it was a charming picture of a precious moment full of the innocence of childhood. But the reaction to his post means in the future Paul Masterton, the new MP for East Renfrewshire, will no doubt think twice before tweeting about his family again.

Mr Masterton’s toddler Daisy was pictured ready for nursery wearing a pink jacket plus a rucksack decorated with a sheep pattern. Beside her was a separate picture of her baby brother Charlie, who happened to be wearing a jumper decorated with cars.

The proud dad captioned the picture: “Momentous day in the Masterton house as Daisy starts big girl nursery. Just about holding it together. Wee bro looks chuffed to get peace.”

It was then that Moira Shemilt, a West Lothian SNP councillor, decided to express an opinion. “Pink and sheep for girls. Tuff (sic) trucks for boys #genderstereotyping” she tweeted.

Quite why a 66-year-old adult would want to make that sort of point about what was an entirely innocuous family scene is difficult to understand. What possesses an individual to make a snide political point about the way a couple of toddlers happen to be dressed?

Does the fact that Mr Masterton happens to be a Tory trigger some sort of Pavlovian response that compels Nationalist politicians to dive for their keyboards? For whatever reason, the existence of social media appears to have provided an outlet for thoughts which in days gone by would not have got past the brain’s decency filter.

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True to Twitter form, Cllr Shemilt was taken to task for her remarks – most notably by Mr Masterton, who was quite rightly indignant that his children had been used by a rival to make some spurious argument about gender-stereotyping.

“How dare you!” typed Mr Masterton. “You should be ashamed shaming parents in this way. For info, we let Daisy pick her own clothes. So what if she likes pink? She also likes Thomas the Tank Engine, dressing up as Elsa, putting on nail polish and playing with cars. A disgraceful and clueless comment.”

At first Cllr Shemilt defended herself by saying she was referring to a BBC debate on gender stereotypes for children. But later she relented, deleted her offending tweet and apologised. It was another unedifying day on Twitter that made one wonder why Cllr Shemilt could not concentrate on getting on with her job.

If he did not know before, Mr Masterton most certainly must know now that Twitter can be an unpleasant place to be.

Despite this, many of our tribunes appear utterly obsessed by it, spending hours arguing and being opinionated through cyberspace. Mostly, it is quite harmless and on certain occasions it can be very effective in taking a political message to a large audience instantly. Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson are masters at this.

The pay off of these communication techniques, however, is that there is a nasty side. For every sensible tweet, there are dozens of comments that in the past would have been confined to green ink letters or sprayed on lavatory walls. The activities of the cybernats discredit the SNP, but they are not solely responsible for the online poison – far from it. Take Ms Davidson’s Tories for example. Two Scottish Conservative councillors have been guilty of making crass and highly offensive online comments. Alastair Majury of Dunblane and Bridge of Allan used his twitter account Mulder 1981 to make anti-Catholic comments.

Not only has the councillor used the derogatory term “tarrier” to describe Catholics, but he tweeted: “Why is the Catholic Church against birth control? Because they’ll run out of children to molest.”

His colleague Robert Davies of the Forth and Endrick ward has also been expressing views of the most offensive nature.

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Cllr Davies posted a series of tweets captioning a picture of black people waiting to board a cargo plane. One tweet read: “In the interests of security keep your loin cloths with you at all times. Spears go in the overhead locker.”

Another said: “No, I’m not your lunch, I am your flight attendant.”

It beggars belief that, in the 21st century, politicians (or anyone) should behave in such a way. Astonishingly, both men have been reinstated to the party after a period of suspension.

Meanwhile Ms Davidson is nowhere to be seen.

Along with many other political leaders, Ms Davidson has been good at calling for the online abuse to stop, so why the reluctance to deal properly with it in her own party?