If we’re going to talk about bad behaviour and abusive and threatening language in online discourse, and what to do about it, we need to do it properly. That means that we can’t isolate out bad behaviour from independence supporters online and claim that there’s a specific problem proper only to one side in Scotland’s constitutional debate while we ignore everything else that goes on online. Bad behaviour on social media is not unique to independence supporters, nor even to those who oppose it.
It is not whataboutery to point out that bad behaviour exists elsewhere online. It is simply the observation that poor behaviour, abusive language, threats, insults, and slurs is a characteristic of a minority of people on social media as a whole. You can’t isolate out one area of discussion and propose that it requires a unique treatment when the behaviour in that one area of discussion is a symptom of a much bigger and more systemic problem. The point here is that it is not online debate about Scottish independence which is problematic. This is not an issue confined to the Scottish constitutional debate. Problems of abuse and threatening behaviour are a feature of social media as a whole, and therefore we need a solution which tackles the root causes, not isolated symptoms.
Trying to solve issues of poor behaviour online and restricting discussion to the behaviour of one side in Scotland’s constitutional debate is rather like a doctor who is confronted with a patient suffering from chickenpox, and deciding that only one pustule needs to be treated. It’s not going to work, the doctor is not going to cure anything, because the problem is not the pustule itself, it’s the underlying disease. Even if they were, somehow, able to get rid of just that one particular pustule, if they don’t deal with the underlying illness it’s just going to pop back up again and all their efforts will have been for naught. Yet that’s precisely what we’re being invited to do in discussions about the poor behaviour of a small minority of independence supporters on social media.
It’s not merely erroneous that the entire independence movement is expected to take responsibility for the behaviour of an abusive minority in a way that our opponents are not expected to take responsbility for the poor behaviour of the very real fascists, sectarian bigots, and far right extremists who infest the ranks of opposition to Scottish independence. That galling double standard is bad enough.
The real error is expecting that we can have a conversation about, and find a remedy for, the poor behaviour of a minority of independence supporters on social media by ripping it out of the wider context of behaviour on social media in general. That is an exercise in futility which only benefits opponents of independence because it reinforces the narrative that it’s only the independence movement which has a problem. It has to be said that the reason that we are constantly being invited to treat the online behaviour of Scottish independence supporters as being especially and uniquely problematic is because it suits opponents of independence and Scotland’s overwhelmingly anti-independence media for us to do so.
The reality is that it does not matter what the topic is, where you have a difference in opinion, a minority of people on social media will use that as a justification for abuse, for insults, for racist, sexist or homophobic or other kinds of slurs, even for making death threats. Women are particular targets of online abuse no matter what the topic of discussion. That’s a symptom of the wider sexism and misogyny of society. Likewise, minorities are targeted. Gay people receive homophobic abuse. Black people receive racist abuse. None of this is anything that’s caused by issues which are unique to Scottish political debate.
Other areas of debate are equally prone to a minority who abuse and who indulge in threatening behaviour. There is an ongoing debate about gender self-ID, this debate has minorities on both sides who toss about insulting language, threatening behaviour, and abuse. Likewise the Brexit debate has a minority, on both sides, who behave equally reprehensibly. Corbyn supporters are frequently accused by their political opponents as being especially badly behaved online, and their opponents are not always lamb-like in their innocence. None of these debates have anything to do with Scottish independence.
In fact, any difference of opinion online will lead to a minority of social media users behaving in ways that are beyond the bounds of what is considered normal and acceptable behaviour in other spheres of human interaction. This occurs because on social media people can be anonymous. There is no immediate consequence for insulting behaviour the way that there is in a face to face encounter. Social media lacks the inhibiting factors that make us behave far more circumspectly in other contexts.
It doesn’t even need to be a serious issue for passions to run high and behaviour to become reprehensible. We all know about abuse and threats amongst sports fans, and they are after all arguing about a pastime, about men kicking a ball about a field. I once witnessed someone making a death threat in a forum for model railway enthusiasts, because some people take the detailing on the latest Hornby model steam locomotive extremely seriously indeed. As a fan of RuPaul’s DragRace I can assure you that a minority of fans of the show get extremely worked up. They insult and abuse competitors, and each other. They toss about racist abuse. There have even been bomb threats. And this is about men who put on frocks and wigs as a form of entertainment. It is often sparked off by disagreements about who performed best in a lip-sync.
It has to be said that out in the real world, amongst the local Yes groups, the SNP groups, the Yes Hubs, and the indy groups, people’s behaviour is unfailingly polite, compassionate, accepting, gentle, welcoming, and tolerant. Those are the real characteristics and the real face of the independence movement, not the online arguments and insults of Twitter – which is the only place where most anti-independence journalists encounter independence activism.
All sensible independence supporters, which is the vast majority, welcome polite and respectful discourse. Likewise they welcome attempts to ensure that Scottish political debate is respectful and polite. After all, the kind of Scotland we seek to build is going to be determined by the kind of campaign we mount in order to achieve it. We want a kinder and gentler Scotland, and that means that we welcome kinder and gentler behaviour.
However we can only tackle poor behaviour online by looking at it in all its aspects, over all topics and fields of debate. We need to examine how the anonymity of social media facilitates abuse and threatening behaviour. We need to tackle the sexism, racism, homophobia, sectarianism, and other forms of discrimination which pervade society and infect online discourse. We all need education in how best to identify and deal with online trolls who seek to provoke, upset, and derail.
However one thing is certain. We will not solve anything by falling into the trap of slavishly following our opponents’ politically motivated insistence that there’s a problem unique to the Yes movement. This is a far bigger issue. Let’s stop pretending that it’s something that only Scottish independence supporters need to beat themselves up for.
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