Dealing With Twitter Trolls

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Mhairi Hunter

Ungagged asked me to expand a bit on a recent twitter thread on social media abuse and I’m happy to do so. I emphasise these are just my personal views but I hope they are helpful. I have made all the mistakes over the years so you don’t have to.

I have been on twitter since 2010. I’ve seen it get bigger and uglier and been through various stages of trying to handle abuse from challenging it, to RTing it, to blocking it and finally muting it. For me, muting it is the best solution. I’ll tell you why.

Challenging it is pointless. Someone abusing you on twitter knows they’re being horrible so there’s no point in telling them that, they want to upset you and make you angry. If you challenge them they will only get worse. The same goes for RTing abuse. I know people sometimes do this to highlight it, but this simply invites other users to join in and participate in a nasty squalid fight that will just leave you drained and depressed.

Blocking people can also make them worse, I’ve had people set up new accounts so they can continue to have a go at me because I blocked them. I do block people in some circumstances but I find muting people is much better at just getting rid of them from my timeline and mentions.

I’ve muted many hundreds of people and twitter is much better for that. I have muted people on the No side and I have muted people on the Yes side. In my opinion a lot of nonsense is talked about the relationship between political positioning and social media abuse. The fact is you get toxic people across the board. Twitter gives you the option to mute them, so use that option. Mute them, forget about them. If they really cross the line, block and report them. And remember – on your twitter you decide what the line is.

If someone threatens you or another person don’t hesitate to go to the police. It may not result in action being taken there and then but you are still providing intelligence which may enable action to be taken at a future point if the perpetrator is following a pattern of behaviour.

I have also thought about my own use of twitter. Quote-tweeting is something I do less and less now due to the way it can instigate pile-ons if you have an above-average number of followers. I realised I was guilty of that after I quote-tweeted what I thought was a particularly silly comment from a political journalist, poking fun at him. My tweet wasn’t malicious or intended to be. I was just taking the piss. But a lot of the replies to my tweet copied in the journalist, were quite abusive and it just went on and on and on.

Coincidentally there was a recent discussion on twitter about why a well-known unionist blogger had been blocked by a large number of SNP MPs. I had blocked this chap myself after he RTd me, leading to a stream of nasties in my mentions. (If you want to stop someone being able to RT you directly, you need to block them).

Probably the blogger didn’t intend to set the flying monkeys on me – any more than I had intended to set them on the journalist – but just didn’t really think about it before quote-tweeting something he saw as silly. We all need to learn that lesson. If you instigate pile-ons, either wittingly or unwittingly, people are entitled to block you. And, for the avoidance of doubt, MPs are people.

I also have to mention twitter clyping in this context – this describes the situation where someone tweets a comment about another person and a different user replies @ing that person in. If the original tweeter wanted to @ the person into their tweet they would have done so. Don’t do it for them because it can result in a confrontation they don’t want.

Inevitably we come to the vexed subject of misogyny. There has been a great deal written about the level of sexual abuse and threats sent to women so I won’t add too much to it. It’s ugly stuff. And the more high-profile a woman is, the worse it gets.

Some may think that high-profile twitter targets never actually have to read the abuse directed at them but they (or people around them) do have to, because they need to assess if they contain any credible threats. The recent Westminster Hall debate which allowed women MPs to talk about the horrific abuse they received was, I hope, an eye opener for some. And, as in life, it’s worse if you are a black woman, a lesbian, a Jew, because misogynists are so often bigots too.

Plus, for all women, twitter tends to have the same double standards as you get in real life – men are assertive, women are aggressive, men are confident, women are arrogant, men are witty, women are silly and childish. And be careful about telling jokes – some men really don’t like it!

So why do I stay on this hellsite? Well, for one thing I rather enjoy being silly and childish on twitter. Twitter at its best is joyous, I have had so many good laughs over the years. For another, I have genuinely made some good pals who I would miss if I left – and that applies to people on both sides of the constitutional divide. So I’m sticking around with my mute button at the ready. Otherwise I’d have to go back to facebook and that would be a fate worse than death.

Councillor Mhairi Hunter speaks to Ungagged on Baby Boxes

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Mhairi Hunter

 

When Ungagged asked me if I’d like to write something about the baby box stooshie my initial reaction was to think it might be too depressing.  But then I thought no, that’s how the Tories want us to feel. So here goes.

It all started with a Guardian story based on two pillars: one, that that a cot death expert had questioned the use of baby boxes as safe sleeping spaces and two, that the baby box does not have safety accreditation.

On the first point, there’s no reason to doubt the expertise of the person making the comments. But, as the Guardian itself reported, he is but one of a large panel of experts advising the Scottish Government on the baby box. Experts don’t always agree but the norm is to go with majority opinion.

On the second point, yes there is no single safety accreditation for the baby box for the simple reason that no such thing exists yet, though it is reported to be in development. But the baby box and its contents meet all relevant safety standards currently in place and the Scottish Government has given a commitment to ensure it complies with any new standard that is introduced.

The story was continued the next day, with suggestions that the SNP had exaggerated the impact of the baby box in reducing child mortality in Finland. This was based on a close analysis of websites, speeches and years-old tweets.

Let’s be absolutely, scrupulously fair and say that you could make a case for this. It’s possible that some claims which were made about the baby box could be interpreted as being overstated. Fair cop. But if you subject claims made by any human beings to a close analysis you will find parts that are overstated. Including in the Guardian’s story.

On the key point, the Scottish Government has never claimed that the baby box will reduce cot death and the Guardian had to amend its article to reflect this reality. The case for the baby box in Scotland is exactly the same as it is in Finland – it is part of a wider range of supports for parents and children to encourage engagement with maternity and ante-natal services and give all children the best start in life.

Now all of this might have been fine – journalists are perfectly entitled to subject government policies to close scrutiny – were it not for the toxic interaction between newspaper stories and political opportunism that characterises much of Scottish politics.

Because the story was not only picked up by other newspapers but exploited by the Conservatives (and, shamefully, a few Labour voices) via an outbreak of concern-trolling on twitter and in the Scottish Parliament itself. Calls were made for information on safety accreditation to be published, even though it already was.

This led to an interesting diversion caused by the First Minister who questioned why the Tories were so dead set against the baby box. Was it simply because it was SNP policy? Was it because they preferred to take state support away from families rather than provide it? Or was it because there was no rape clause defining eligibility to receive it?

The latter comment was, apparently, beyond the pale. The rape clause is far too obscene to be mentioned in polite society, you see. It spoils the discourse. Now, I quite agree the rape clause is obscene. That is precisely why it should be raised in polite society at every single opportunity until the Tories finally acknowledge its obscenity, get their discourse together and do something about it.

But back to the baby box. At the end of it all we’re left with the question, are baby boxes safe? Yes, they are.

We all bring our own experience to bear when reading stories like this and my own experience, as someone whose job regularly brings me into contact with health professionals, is that the NHS tends to be pretty risk averse. For me, the idea that the Chief Medical Officer and the serried ranks of health professionals behind her would support anything that potentially places babies at risk is ludicrous. This is just a personal opinion, of course, but one which I suspect would be shared by most people with experience of how the NHS operates.

I’ve talked to health visitors who think the baby box is a fantastic initiative, not only because it ensures that every parent can have a box of essential items ready for bringing baby home but because it provides a simple and effective way to work with and support new mums and dads, especially those who don’t have the help of other experienced parents around them to draw on.  This includes talking about safe sleep. If I’m asked to choose between the opinion of health visitors and the opinion of Tory MSPs, I’m going with the health visitors every time.

So what have we learned from all of this? Apart from the fact that the Sun never knows when to stop, the main thing, I think, is that the politicians who made hay with these various stories did so because they were against the baby box to begin with. And maybe we need to ask the same question as Nicola Sturgeon. What is it about the baby box that makes Tories so very angry?

I think I know the answer. It’s because people like it.

My view, to be fair, is largely based on anecdotal evidence. I don’t know what polling has been done on the subject but the large uptake of baby boxes suggests that parents like it. And so do other people.

What do people like about it? It’s not necessarily the specific policy imperatives it is designed to support. I suspect it is much simpler than that.

They just like the idea of the government providing – on our behalf – a gift for every newborn child. They like what that says – welcome to the world, little one, we care about you, we want you to have a good life and we want to help. They like the fairness of treating every baby equally. They like the generosity which, even in tough times, can find a helpful way to welcome each little miracle of life. They like it because it’s a lovely thing to do and they have no time for mean-spirited penny pinchers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That’s what makes the Tories angry but they’re just going to have to get used to it. The baby box is here to stay and I for one am delighted about that.

The MSM, the SNP and the Yes movement

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Mhairi Hunter

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the UK and Scottish media is mainly hostile towards the SNP. But that hasn’t stopped the SNP. The media doesn’t decide who wins elections in Scotland, the people do.

Since the SNP won power the media environment in Scotland has become marginally more favourable. But at the same time distrust of the media from SNP and Yes supporters has grown stronger.

There are some who think the answer to media bias is for the SNP to simply disengage from the MSM. They should consider what the consequence would be. It wouldn’t end the phenomenon known as #SNPBad. Rather, it would mean there was nothing but #SNPBad as our point of view wouldn’t be heard at all. I can’t see how that would be an improvement.

And sometimes I find myself reading a story described as #SNPBad and thinking hold on a minute, there’s a valid point here. The job of any government will never be complete, there will always be problems that need fixed and it’s perfectly legitimate for journalists to highlight them.

Many journalists see their job as holding the powerful to account and the SNP is in power. But the fact that we’re in power in a UK context makes it a wee bit tricky. We’re both in power and not in power, in control yet not in control. It’s more layered and complex than many journalists acknowledge and, perhaps unsurprisingly, lines become blurred and readers become enraged instead of engaged.
We do need to recognise the media is not a single entity. There are good journalists and bad journalists. There are a few who are essentially professional trolls. And there are many journalists who write stories which are good for the SNP and also write stories which are bad for the SNP. That’s just the nature of journalism.

None of this means I don’t understand and share the frustration of people infuriated by sloppy, one-dimensional inaccurate stories about the SNP or Scottish Government in the media. I do.

We should always highlight falsehoods and make sure as many people as possible are made aware of them. And we should also do as much as we can to support new Scottish media.

But I still think SNP supporters can ascribe to the MSM a power it doesn’t have. We are not victims. We are in government and we should have more confidence in ourselves.

Equally, I think Scottish journalists and editors ought to reflect on the fact that a large chunk of the population feels marginalised and alienated from a media which should encompass the diversity of opinion in Scotland. That is not healthy or sustainable.

A degree of scepticism from readers is healthy, however, and should be encouraged. I’d like to see all of us apply the same healthy scepticism we bring to our own media to all media. If you believe the BBC is institutionally programmed to promote the interests of the British Establishment – as I do – then that is even more true of broadcasters like RT. Let’s apply the same critical analysis to their output.

The current debate around fake news, social media and tribal epistemology (which describes the situation where the perceived truth or falseness of a statement depends entirely on who is making it) is not only pertinent for journalists and commentators, it’s very pertinent for us too. I believe that understanding the danger of this phenomenon is crucial for the Yes movement as we gear up to make a renewed case for independence.

Many people in Scotland still feel that the world has gone a bit bonkers and that it’s difficult to know who and what to believe. That condition applies to people who voted Yes and No alike. They are nervous about the future.

In my view that makes it even more vital that the case for independence is made in a rational, calm and evidence-based way. We need to persuade undecided voters – to earn their trust, not scare them away. Rather than absorbing a tribal approach to politics we need to recognise tribalism is our enemy.
I think that means we need to be careful with the language we use when discussing the media. It doesn’t mean we need to be less critical of inaccurate reports but if you find yourself railing against the failing biased phoney fake news media you should probably stop and have a wee lie-down.

The next Yes campaign really needs to be a serious affair, in contrast to the political pantomime of the past few years in the UK. It needs to offer complex solutions to complex problems, it needs to be pluralist, it needs to be diverse, it needs to be inclusive, it needs to be rigorous, it needs to be honest, above all it needs to be grown-up.

In an ideal world a grown-up campaign would be covered by a grown-up media. I’m not holding my breath on that one. But the fact we can’t control how the media will cover it doesn’t change the way we need to campaign. And we need to campaign that way now.

Mhairi Hunter

Reading Time: 1 minute
Mhairi Hunter

Mhairi has been a councillor in Glasgow since 2012, representing Southside Central Ward which comprises Queen’s Park,  Crosshill, Govanhill, Laurieston, Gorbals and Oatlands.

A self-confessed SNP hack, she worked in SNP HQ between 1997-2007 before working as Nicola Surgeon’s constituency manager until 2016. In 2017 the SNP were elected to run Glasgow City Council and Mhairi was apply he’d City Convener for Health and Social Integration.

 

She is the organiser for Glasgow Southside SNP and was a local YES co-ordinator during the referendum.

 

Born and brought up in London, Mhairi first political involvement was joining the Anti-Nazi League when she was 13. Opposing Nazis remains a firm priority.

 

Mhairi is a carer for her elderly father, and also for her increasingly elderly dog, Charlie. She has very little spare time and what time she has she likes to waste on Twitter or binge-watching Netflix instead of doing housework or other useful activities.

 

You can follow Mhairi on twitter