Antisocial Media

Twitter abuse shows need to tame ‘Wild West’ where decency and legality don’t apply.

Here is a phrase often used when arguments on social media get out of control and become abusive. “Oh, it’s only Twitter/Facebook/WhatsApp,” someone will say, “it’s not real life.” This suggests that things said on social media should not be held to the same moral and legal standards required by other means of communication. If you hurl threats at someone in a pub or in the street you risk being arrested. If you do so in a phone call you could similarly be in trouble with the law. The same goes for threats in an old-fashioned letter delivered in the mail. And yet, according to some, a similar threat made in the heat of a Twitter spat is just high spirits.

This view is both wrong and dangerous. Social media is not somehow divorced from real life. It is fully a part of real life. It is, for millions of people, how they communicate in the 21st century. In fact some teenagers barely communicate in any other way. And yet there is still a disconnect that allows social media to be regarded as some sort of digital Wild West where normal standards of legality and decency do not apply.

A report on Twitter abuse across the UK has revealed marked geographical differences. Scotland has been identified as the worst area for homophobic or racist abuse. Does this mean Scots are more racist or homophobic than people in other parts of the UK? A more likely explanation may lie in the heightened air of antagonism on social media in Scotland as a result of the sometimes bitter debate about independence. Could it be that differences are already at such a pitch, and divisions so keenly felt, that abuse of various different kinds is more readily unleashed?

Remedying abuse on social media is fraught with difficulties — but not so fraught as to render the legal authorities powerless. Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle of our free society, and this newspaper has always been firm in its defence. Yet this freedom has never been absolute, and in fact is all the stronger for having its limits clearly delineated. The intervention of the Crown in deciding what is acceptable speech and what is not should not be considered lightly. The Scottish government’s troubles over its offensive behaviour at football legislation shows the need for sure-footedness. Underreaction is, however, as dangerous as overreaction. The number of cases brought before the Scottish courts for online abuse is vanishingly small. It would seem that in the eyes of the Crown there is one law online and another law in the street.

This is not sustainable. It fails to match the law to the world we live in, and in doing so undermines public confidence in that law. It is unacceptable for important areas of our social and civic life to be seen to be outwith the rules that operate elsewhere. Law-breaking on social media must be within the reach of justice.

This is not a demand for new legislation. Scots law has sufficient flexibility in offences such as breach of the peace to be able to deal with transgressions of this kind. The Crown Office, in discussion with the police, needs to recognise the concern around this — not least from parents — and treat this as a public order priority.

Nobody wants cyberpolice roaming our Facebook pages, checking every cat picture and holiday snap from the Algarve. But there are basic standards of legality and decency that need to be upheld, whether in a saloon bar or a status update.