From paedophiles to wannabe Jihadis, the internet can be a dark and sinister place. Yes, it has revolutionised communication and opened each of us up to vast amounts of information, but it has a cruel side as with all things that man touches. Now, MPs say they want to crack down on the abuse that almost all #Social media users experience and see. I’m not sure that they will be successful, however laudable their intentions, but it is the time for a discussion on this issue.

On ITV’s lunchtime news today (13 December 2017), Gina Miller, the businesswoman-turned-campaigner, argues this is something that needs to be tackled but not because MPs are now personally impacted by it.

She’s right, of course, but there is a very sinister targeting of MPs and public figures in a way quite unlike anything that has come before.

Fake news?

Social media, while allegedly opening us up to a wider world, is the very worst echo chamber. Most people follow who they agree with and rarely ever interact with people they disagree with. When they do interact, it is often quite aggressive and unsavoury. Language is used in a way that it never would be to a perfect stranger in the real world. I imagine most of you can think of foul abuse being levelled at you for holding an opposing opinion. Something about being behind a computer screen gives people the confidence to be rude, I know I have been in the past and I come away feeling worse for it. Sometimes it can be due to a tweet (their shortness doesn’t offer much chance of lengthy explanation) being misunderstood, they can easily look much harsher than was ever intended.

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But, often they convey a great deal of hatred and bile.

We have also seen the advent of so-called fake news. It’s not a term that I like to use if I can help it - either it is a lie or it isn’t. It has arisen from a lack of trust in the established media and has done much to muddy the debate. It often plays to our deepest prejudices, whether it’s an irrational hatred of Tories or of the ‘other’, and straddles both sides of the political divide. As Churchill famously said, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. Pandering to prejudice does no good to anyone, and I do not think that it is a coincidence that this and the intensification of #Online Abuse have arisen in tandem.

Some of the things said are nothing short of vile. MPs, especially women, receive threats of violence, rape and even death. Would they receive such messages face-to-face? The answer, of course, is no. There will always be some oddballs and the down-right rude, but I suspect the seeming anonymity of a faceless social media account gives some the idea that ordinary social norms can be dispensed with.

Yet social media conveys the idea of a false closeness, that perfect strangers are our friends or can be abused. Adversarial debate is not something new, indeed it is good and a sure protection of our liberty, but there are limits.

Drawing a line

Paris Lees, on ITV News Gina Miller, suggested that society needs to become more caring. I’m not often in agreement with Ms Lees, but she is right. When most (if not all) people subscribed to Christian morals society was much politer. It wasn’t entirely perfect but swearing was uncommon, certainly not to be broadcasted or included in ‘polite’ (I fail to see how a conversation involving swearing is polite) conversation. Now, swearing is hardly shocking, it is commonplace. I say that as someone who regrets using that language and I'm still mortified to hear children saying it (although I can safely say that none have learnt it from me).

I think we are generally quite good in this country concerning racism. Who doesn't shudder at hearing the n-word? It will never truly be gone but we are on the right path. Some, I think of the professional protestor, will never be content, but for the most part, we are in a good position. Anti-semitism is a black mark on our record, it is disgraceful but unfortunately accepted to some extent. Under the guise of hating Israel, failing to accept the reality and sad history of its peoples, hatred of the Jewish people has reared it’s ugly head. It has taken root in the fringe Left and marred Corbyn’s Labour Party. On the other end of the spectrum (which is inaccurate but useful for our purposes), is an intolerance of all things Islamic. I’m sure you can think of examples of both cases.

These issues have gained traction in light of terror attacks, the rise of Corbyn and the 2016 EU referendum, from which the entire country is divided into the Remain camp and the Leave camp. Well, in truth, I think most of us are bored and want a painless Brexit, but our politicians speak as though civil war is on the horizon. Discussion of these issues, amongst others be it education, abortion, the NHS, defence, traffic restrictions or the sugar content of a cream cake, increasingly descend into aggression. We have to draw the line somewhere.

What can we do?

It should be a given that violence is wrong in a civilised society and threatening a stranger is off-limits completely. Alas, it isn’t. In the absence of human decency, the government will take it upon itself (rightly or wrongly) to resolve the issue. I’m not certain the proposals, to treat social media platforms as publishers and so hold them to the standard of newspapers, will make much difference. It defeats the point of social media. It should be a place where I can say anything I like, as #Freedom Of Thought and speech dictates. But with that great freedom comes an even greater responsibility. That of moderating yourself in line with basic decency. There are limits on freedom of speech, most of us would agree that unnecessarily crying wolf is one such limit that is reasonable, but the rebel in me (admittedly its deep down somewhere) baulks at hate speech laws.

Not only is it far beyond what a government should be able to do, it infantilises the population. As adults, we should know what is within the bounds of decency, but now we have to prove that. Furthermore, it risks policing what views are acceptable and that can never be a good thing when a debate is the best way of defeating unsavoury opponents.

One positive move would be for social media sites to force users to reveal their identity when signing up, if not making it known on the profile. I’m sure users would think twice before carelessly throwing about abuse. Outside of the law, what is there then? Well, it’s you. We must be the ones to think about what we are saying. You can be free to say what you like, English history has seen the government being told what it can do rather than, as in France and the US, the citizen being told what they are allowed to do. However, you are responsible for the harm you cause. So it’s up to us to moderate our language, to consider what it is that we are saying and treat each other with the decency that our forefathers knew implicitly.

A word of warning

Before I finish, I would give a note of caution. This process should not become subject to the law. Our lawmakers will invariably go too far. Freedom of thought and speech are two of the greatest liberties that we can have, the state cannot be trusted to monitor such things. MPs are often the victims of this, they have a stake in suppressing abuse but that does not mean they can have the final say. As I said above, social media commentary is open to misinterpretation and there is a sinister movement to suppress opposing opinions through an unofficial censorship of social ostracism and a loss of work.

In this vein, the blanket term “abuse” should not be acceptable as a way to avoid scrutiny. My own MP (He shall remain nameless) has blocked me, not because I have sworn at him or abused him in any way but for asking not especially difficult questions. This can be found on Twitter, it is disgraceful that an elected representative should seek to avoid scrutiny through the ‘Block’ button when I have few opportunities to question him otherwise. Let us now take the opportunity to tone down the rhetoric and stop the threats. What we need is a kinder, gentler politics.