OBSCENE and foul-mouthed insults are very much a part of Scottish culture. We are after all a nation which invented an entire genre of poetry devoted to name-calling — the fine art of flyting. The 16th-century Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, with its abusive epithets and insults, still ranks as one of the sweary word bedecked glories of Scots literature and the first instance of the f-word appearing in poetry. Scottish social media is merely the modern incarnation of the flyting tradition.

Earlier this week SNP MEP Alyn Smith called for SNP members to be barred from using anonymous social media accounts. He wants Scottish social media to be cleaned up, for people to debate and engage with one another in a more respectful and pleasant manner. That’s a laudable aim, but it’s unrealistic to imagine that you can somehow separate discussion of Scottish politics on social media and expect it to adhere to different standards of behaviour from social media as a whole. The whole world flytes now, and not just about politics. On social media, where people are able to hide behind an anonymous account, it’s very easy to say things to people that you wouldn’t dream of saying to them in person, unless you were Kennedy or Dunbar.

There’s no denying that there’s a lot of nasty, trollish and unpleasant behaviour in social media, but it’s wrong to suggest or imply – as some politicians have – that it’s a particular problem for Scottish political discussion. It’s wrong to make out that Scottish politics is uniquely problematic on social media in a way that no other topic is. Social media everywhere can be unpleasant, nasty and abusive, and it can be so irrespective of what the topic is. Some of the worst abuse I’ve ever witnessed on social media was in a forum for model railway enthusiasts, because some people take the detailing on the latest Hornby locomotive extremely seriously indeed. And if you cast aspersions on my prized OO gauge model of a Class 303 Electric Motor Unit I will hunt you down like a dog.

Loading article content

Some of the worst abuse on social media of late was the so-called Gamergate affair, which was worked up into a poisonous froth by immature gaming fanboys who objected to conceding the point that women are human beings too. It was misogynistic, foul, abusive and deeply nasty, but essentially it all revolved around video games. What really gets on people’s goats is boys arguing about their toys. This is not exactly high stakes when compared to the future of a nation. However the problem is that the politicians who make calls for Scottish political social media to be cleaned up generally only engage with social media about Scottish politics. They’re not so interested in what goes on elsewhere.

Unfortunately Smith’s call allowed journalists to repeat previous slurs, such as the allegation that the SNP candidate for Edinburgh South had suggested that Unionists were like Nazi collaborators. In fact all he’d done was to retweet a link to an article on the satirical website BBC Scotlandshire about an entirely imaginary “Quisling Awards Ceremony”. Which isn’t exactly the same as calling someone a Nazi. It perpetuates the stereotype that online abuse is a particular problem for independence supporters. It is, but not in the way that the Unionist media likes to think.

Online abuse from independence supporters certainly happens, but interestingly the small amount of objective data which does exist suggests that the majority of Scottish political abuse on social media comes from Unionists abusing independence supporters, and not the other way about. A Survation poll in 2014 found that 21 per cent of independence supporters had been subject to abuse or threats because of their political views as opposed to just 8 per cent of Unionists. Another poll carried out by Panelbase in 2015 found that 20 per cent of Yes voters had received online abuse because of their stance on independence, compared to 11 per cent of No voters. Online abuse is indeed a particular problem for independence supporters – they’re twice as likely to be subjected to it. The only people ever convicted of offences arising from social media have been Unionists abusing and threatening pro-independence politicians.

Writing about Scottish independence for a pro-independence newspaper means you’re going to get abuse on social media. It comes with the territory. I’ve had insults aplenty, swearing, invective – which I don’t object to immensely because if you’re going to throw it out you should be able to take it, too. But I’ve also had threats and some deeply creepy abuse that crosses the line from fair comment to stalker. I’ve got a longer block list than the Falkirk phone book, and it includes a number of journalists who write articles decrying evil cybernattery. I always avoid Twitter on Tuesdays. On Tuesday afternoon or evening The National publishes a push-quote from my article which is published in the paper the following day. Immediately my Twitter feed is full of abusive comments from Unionists who are outraged about an article that they’ve not actually read.

It would be nice if we could confine our insults and invective to the witty variety. It would be good if people could refrain from simple name-calling without any humour. But it would be even nicer if the Unionist parties would recognise that the problems with unacceptable behaviour in Scottish social media very much involve their own supporters. They’re very quick to cry victim and to demand that the SNP takes responsibility for the actions of people who very often aren’t SNP members, but they are extremely slow to acknowledge that their own support base contains people who commit some of the worst abuse. In fact, for all that the Unionist parties demand that the SNP take action, they entirely refuse to admit that they themselves have any sort of a problem at all. When Unionist politicians are outed as being responsible for online abuse, it’s portrayed as a few bad apples. When independence supporters are outed as responsible for online abuse, it’s portrayed as a rotten orchard.

Where are the Unionist politicians calling on the likes of infamous Brian Spanner to come out from behind the anonymity of his user ID and apologise in person to those he’s abused, because an anonymous apology is no apology at all? Such statistics as there are prove that most online abuse is committed by Unionists abusing independence supporters. And let’s be honest, when you’re quite laid-back about sectarian bigots marching up and down streets in Scottish towns and cities and spreading hate and causing fear, it’s a bit rich to fuss about online etiquette. It’s time that the Unionist parties took responsibility for cleaning up their own act before accusing other people of dirty behaviour.