Trolls and threats: don’t blame social for nastiness

I’ve always enjoyed debate and place great importance on our freedom to challenge opinions we disagree with.

This can be tough, and I have become jaded lately by what I’ve seen and experienced on Twitter in relation to Syria. I stayed away from it for a couple of days last week because of the unpleasantness displayed towards people who expressed different views to opponents of the decision to start a bombing campaign.

Social media enables anyone to voice opinions, unchecked and unfiltered, to the wider world. On balance, this is a good thing. It’s make discourse more interesting and gives an airing to views which are too easily overlooked by the mainstream. If there was ever a time when politicians, media and civic institutions shaped public discourse, it feels distant today.

So what to make of the trolling and abuse that followed the vote to launch air strikes over Syria? Some was unpleasant and thuggish, but this should be seen in the context of a wider conversation that did great credit to the public and our MPs.

Harsh, but fair?

I was with some MPs the day after the motion was passed in the Commons. They talked about abusive emails and tweets from people who were clearly angry at how they voted.

And there’s the demonstrations and threats outside the Stella Creasy’s office and the calls to deselect the 66 Labour MPs who voted for air strikes, which ramped up ‘lobbying’ to uncomfortable levels.

I wonder how many of those involved in such activity really listened to the speeches given by MPs in Parliament on Wednesday. Those I heard, on all sides of the argument, were well considered and did justice to the severity of the decision they faced. Some comments have been dispiriting and cast a shadow on the quality of debate.

Is social media really to blame for this? Andy Burnham suggested it maybe part of the problem and has called for a code of conduct for Labour Party members in response.

I think this misses the point for a couple of reasons.

#1. This behaviour pre-dates social media. I remember covering heated debates between Sheffield MPs and their constituents in the run-up to the decision to send troops to Iraq in 2003 when I was a journalist in the city. A packed hall shouted at Richard Caborn, then a government minister, one Friday night over his support for the decision, accusing him of mendacity and talking crap. Protests hit the streets at night. The atmosphere was tense and unpleasant at times. The newspaper I worked for was abused for its coverage of these debates. Much of what was said then feels and looks similar to the anger and frustration expressed today.

That many of the comments are anonymous and can be made easily via social media must make this seem more menacing at times of high tension. But it would be wrong to suggest that this behaviour is new, or even unwarranted, in most cases.

#2. Politicians must accept some responsibility for the nasty atmosphere after making incendiary and irresponsible comments which may have helped fuel it. The ‘terrorist sympathiser’ jibe from our PM (which was booed by BBC Question Time’s audience when defended by Nicky Morgan on Thursday) and Alex Salmond’s nasty comment that Tony Benn would be ‘birling in his grave’ following his son Hilary’s speech have not set a good example.

Until our leaders show more respect and restraint, can they really expect others to follow suit? I don’t think they can.

It was encouraging to see these comments attract public derision. Maybe leaders and their advisers will learn that people are not prepared to stand for such sniping.

Don’t blame social

Yes, some of the comments on all sides have been unpleasant. But most people know where the boundaries lie and any illegal or threatening activity should be dealt with swiftly by the authorities.

Let’s not think that blaming Twitter will do anything to stop this behaviour; used in the right way, it could even help to change discourse. If people feel like they’re being listened to properly, most will respect you even if they don’t agree.

Check out this tweet below as an example.

There are many others like that and they give hope that we’re not heading to a place where people are intimidated and scared to express their views.

We’re lucky to live in a country where this is possible.

NB: For the record, I did not support the war in Iraq in 2003, and struggled to make my mind up on Syria until the day of the vote. Having listened to the debate and read around it, I would narrowly support this decision.