The Uncontrollable Mob

Social media is such a misnomer when you think about it. Firstly, it’s not really “media” in the sense of the previous term, and the only thing social about it is the fact that it involves other people. Standing in the middle of a busy street and watching everyone walking by, talking to yourself quietly is not that social, and that’s what most of the outpourings on Twitter and Facebook are – small and limited whisperings shouted against the wider wall of noise of the entire internet. It’s why this wee blog, which has been going on for near enough a decade, has around 2000 readers a month and no more (yes, seriously, 2000 unique readers a month now, presumably helped by my podcast).

Occasionally, like this for example, these small voices can break through and reach a critical mass. But if that never happens, you're forever shouting into the void – no media, not social. I don’t know what would be a better term for our new world, but it’s certainly not the current one. The thing that most people forget is that this world of "self-publishing" is only around ten-ish years old – Twitter and Facebook came into my life after my blog, which is quite something else. The rest of the world has managed to catch up with the democratisation of the world with people pouring their words and thoughts onto the internet without much thought. Back when I started to write for this blog I read up the rules on what I could write and say just to make sure I didn’t break any laws. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? But I have an audience that could be greater than many journalists that have had ethics and law training might have, and I was endlessly worried about my opinion being misconstrued or taken the wrong way.

There are umpteen other bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users who don’t care about that. They’ll happily break the law by tweeting the names of rape victims and posting photos of them around various sites, and don’t think that they’ll get caught (or don’t know that they are breaking the law). It’s part and parcel of the world’s new platforms for expressions; you might legally be in contempt of court by talking to you and your mates in your own home, but will you get caught doing it? But if you do it with a few of your mates but also broadcast it in print across the internet it’ll be there forever, and it’ll be searchable by the authorities.

This poses a problem for two reasons – the first is how do you educate people that this is a problem? I’ve talked at length about the future implications of posting loads of photos of your children onto the internet, and have had people come down on both sides of the argument. A few weeks back Connie sent me a link to a child who was suing their parents because of photos they had posted that they refused to remove. It’s a problem that might increasingly become an issue in the future; all I need to do is scroll down my timeline to see friends posting pictures of their kids in varying stages of undress, and I wonder what the children will think of that. I mean, I’m embarrassed about photos I’ve posted on Instagram from only last week – not sure what I’d think about photos of me as a baby of child on Facebook from when I was a kid from decades ago, specifically ones where I have no control over.

The second reason is that in this world of opinions certain people need to find a reason for outpourings of abuse from somewhere. In recent years what you might call “orchestrated” attacks on people on social media have increased into what might be termed epidemic levels. Leslie Jones, the comedian who starred in the recent Ghostbusters: Answer the Call movie (which I thought was funny and entertaining but a by-rote re-tread of the original) experienced vitriolic abuse and indeed was hacked, with personal information posted online. This has happened to many other people in the past and will probably only get worse as the law struggles to keep up. This kind of abuse is orchestrated and demonstrably so; go on 4Chan or Reddit and find threads about it, and you’ll find that there was a campaign for the abuse. That mob was controlled. It was targeted.

What do you do when a “mob” isn’t controlled? What if there is no mob? In the recent post-IndyRef and post-Brexit world certain people of certain political persuasions are emboldened in ways that before they might not be. I am more emboldened to wear my Yes badge proudly because I still believe in the facets of Independence. Unionist the same, as is their right. But in the world of the internet and the abuse that can be hurled at people in the public eye, a consensus can be sometimes misconstrued as a campaign. It makes sense too to think like this; “Everyone dislikes me and they’re being abusive all at once, I must therefore being targeted” rather than believing you might be thinking something people will disagree with in unison. It is a natural leap for humans to make connections to things like this, especially when the world seems at-odds with us.

This wouldn’t be an issue if it was just a personal thing, a realisation personally that you might be the victim of a targeted attack, despite its most likely not being as such. The main problem is that these can become issues in themselves, ones that can overshadow actual debate. Take for example the IndyRef and the terms “Yoon” and “cybernat”, both of which are quite astronomically infuriating. The “Yoons” are considered those who attack all policies on independence with vitriolic damnation, and “cybernats” is a relatively more in use term used to bracket all Nationalists on the internet as somewhat of a hooligan term - "vile cybernats" is a phrase oft used in the print media when reporting on stories of these campaigns. Obviously, on both sides, there are people who do fall into these brackets, but without even having to do research you can imagine that both sides have equal numbers of them, and that they are the small minority. Why do I not need to do research into this? Well, you can do it by inspection – if they were common and weren’t the minority, then surely there would be more examples of them being the real story, instead of the actual facets of independence. Think of it as proof by counter-positve.

It is a fallacy to think that any one person is a central controller of these people. It’s also a fallacy to blame the parties who they align themselves with. The most despicable political parties align themselves with certain movements all the time (UKIP to Brexit, for example) but that doesn’t mean that everyone that also votes that is also a “UKIPer”. That’s just the problem though; the SNP are blamed for “mobs” that they have no control over. Nicola Sturgeon is constantly bemoaned for her lack of control over people who abuse in her name, when she has no control over the platform they are using, nor do they report to her. The other flip of this problem is that certain parts of the media try to have it both ways - you can't complain that "the SNP must take responsibility for all people who are abusive under the Yes banner", and then also complain that "not everyone who is a Unionist is also a 'Yoon'".

There are people in all camps who you personally would prefer had no voice in the debate but that’s not how democracy works; all opinions are equal, it’s how you challenge them that makes for reasoned and good debate. It’s why the IndyRef was almost entirely peaceful, because the lines were drawn passing straight through ideological and party lines, and cut right into the heart of what makes Scotland Scotland, meaning everyone and their dog had and to and did debate it and debated it well. If our constant reaction to these people is to pretend they are part of the machinations of a concerted a vicious campaign somehow recognised at the least and at the worst actually sponsered by a real legitimate party, then it just makes them think that they are, and that shuts down the voices and the reasons that they can later reduced. It’s not about bleating that they exist, nor that as Douglas Adams would say that it is “someone else’s problem” that renders them invisible, but that we should engage with them on both sides and stop pretending they’re part of a concerted campaign.

Once that is done, we can then discover the actual concerted campaigns of abuse, and challenge them.