Scott Macnab: Leaders must set example to fight social media abuse

A Reclaim the Internet campaign aims to cut down abuse and ensure all voices can be heard online.

A Reclaim the Internet campaign aims to cut down abuse and ensure all voices can be heard online.

Extremist language from political leaders on social media erodes our values as the masses join in, writes Scott Macnab.

The digital technology revolution brought about by the rise of the internet and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has been hailed as a positive and liberating force in politics.

It brought about a new awakening among oppressed populations who unleashed the Arab Spring at the start of this decade.

Authoritarian regimes in North Africa were unable to cope with the blossoming sense of liberation – not to mention organisation – which the new order in communications helped drive and found themselves swept from power.

In Scotland, the independence debate in the years leading up to the referendum of 2014 were marked by the upsurge of social media platforms for political debate and as a campaign tool. Nationalists in particular viewed it as a valuable way to bypass the traditional “mainstream media” which was mostly viewed as being biased against a Yes vote.

But there are now growing concerns about the malevolent and corrosive impact of social media on the broader public debate.

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The hardline abuse meted out by leading political figures and commentators online is increasingly viewed as “normalising” the level of nastiness and aggression in our lives – we’ve simply become de-sensitised as to what should be viewed as unacceptable any more.

And surely when Scots children find their daily lives poisoned by such abuse, it’s time to take stock.

A keynote report into bullying in Scotland’s schools by MSPs on Holyrood’s equalities committee last week raised worrying questions over the role of political leaders in the ways youngsters are victimised.

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Bullying no longer “stops at the school gate”, with the new culture of cyber abuse meaning there is little respite for victims.

And the report warned: “Recent reporting of news items in relation to terrorism, Brexit and the American presidential election have given permission and credence to views previously considered off-limits.” Now, US president Donald Trump and Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are not solely responsible for bullying in Scotland’s “virtual” playgrounds. But the often brutal approach to Twitter confrontations is contributing to an air of “acceptability” of this.

Teachers have talked about a culture that is beginning to legitimise the view that, “Oh, I can make this sort of comment” on the basis of freedom of speech, according to Dr Rowena Arshad of Edinburgh University. She told MSPs the story of a parent who was contacted because their child was bullying other pupils, and responded: “My kid got caught. That was a bit unfortunate, but it happens in the school.” The headteacher said she did not think that she would have got such a response six months ago, but the post-Brexit, post-US election climate has changed attitudes.

Amid a continual “blurring of the boundaries” around acceptable behaviour and language, MSPs are now calling for a preventative approach to be adopted by the Scottish Government. One thing for sure is that the technology ain’t going away.

The smartphone is akin to an extra limb for youngsters and adults alike.

It can be a depressing sight to see the soaring numbers of smart phones users who resemble zombies as they wander along city streets, heads bowed and consumed by their latest notifications and updates. But this is progress and we better get used to it.

And it would be churlish to suggest its influence has been all malign.

A new passion and energy for politics has sprung up in the UK and further afield.

It has been a driving force in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as campaign groups like Momentum mobilise a new generation of left-wing activism which has propelled the once-unfancied Labour leader ahead in the polls. But the party’s former Cabinet minister Yvette Cooper, a firm critic of Corbyn, warned in a speech at the weekend of the damaging impact on wider society as “abuse and vitriol” which belongs at the margins of political debate is instead pushed “right to its heart”. Ms Cooper, a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, fears the impact of the US president’s online activity – as he attacks targets including broadcasters and the judiciary – branding this the “bully pulpit of the most powerful man in the world”.

This is then echoed and amplified by online cheerleaders. And it all become the new backdrop of politics.

The problem is, says Cooper, that we’re forgetting to be disturbed any more. We’re treating this as the new normal, with outrage at it seen as being “overblown”.

In fact, what is being “normalised” is the undermining of our democratic values, with an escalating hatred and contempt for others. It has even prompted the launch of a Reclaim the Internet campaign, based on the Reclaim the Night movement of the 1980s, which is aimed at ensuring that all voices can be heard and abuse is called out at every opportunity.

The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg and the corporation itself has been in the frontline of attacks from Corbyn supporters amid anger over the coverage of the Labour leader.

This has echoes of the sustained pressure which Beeb bosses came under during the referendum campaign in Scotland with marches on its Pacific Quay headquarters not an uncommon sight as Alex Salmond took umbrage at the treatment of some story or other about the referendum. Salmond was at it again last week, criticising the BBC for having temerity to devote some coverage to the prospect of Scotland’s economy facing the prospect of falling into recession.

Thankfully it never happened.

But with Salmond presumably now focusing on rehearsals for his Edinburgh Fringe Festival chatshow, a more statesmanlike contribution to the broader political debate in Scotland came from his SNP colleague, Alyn Smith MEP, who called for all parties to adopt an online code of conduct to combat the digital abuse which threats to poison engagement in Scotland.

As the younger generation bears the brunt of this language of extremism, it is initiatives such as these, to “reclaim” the social media arena for tolerance and respect, which must be welcomed and encouraged.