THE BLOG

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Don't Say Anything at All

30/01/2014 12:05 GMT | Updated 31/03/2014 10:59 BST

I've already given away my best piece of advice in the title. I want to focus here on the behaviour of social media users but, in all fairness it's probably not a bad approach to adopt in day to day life; which is, in effect, my point. Many of us already apply this mentality to our day to day dealings, or at least we pay careful attention to how we hand out our criticism and disdain. Which rather begs the question, why is it any different on social media? Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion and should be free to express it. Yet it feels as if every day there is a new story recounting yet another instance of someone in trouble for saying something offensive on some social media site or other. Often it is something really offensive that you could not imagine them ever having expressed in 'real life', and certainly not to the face of the person they are aiming it at.

Take the recent example of Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo, prosecuted and now imprisoned for subjecting Caroline Criado-Perez, a high profile feminist campaigner, to genuinely unpleasant online abuse.

Ms Criado-Perez had successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to be the new face of the £10 note. I don't know about you, but if I was going to mount such a campaign, I might expect, say, Charlotte Bronte fans, to be a bit miffed, perhaps even Agatha Christie or Mary Shelley fans to be a bit put out, but I wouldn't have expected this - "f*** off and die you worthless piece of cr*p", "go kill yourself" and "rape is the last of your worries" tweeted Sorley. "Shut up b*tch", "Ya not that gd looking to rape u be fine", "I will find you :)" and "rape her nice ass" were the choice tweets sent by Nimmo.

Both Sorley and Nimmo pleaded guilty to sending menacing tweets. In doing so they admitted they were amongst the users of 86 separate Twitter accounts from which Ms Criado-Perez had received abusive messages. I was really shocked that two people would send such messages, never mind a possible 86! Judge Howard Riddle, sentencing, said that it was "hard to imagine more extreme threats" pointing out that the effect of the abuse on Ms Criado-Perez had been "life- changing", causing her "panic and fear and horror". Another victim, Stella Creasy, has been so affected that she has had a panic button installed in her home.

Surely not all of those 86 social media users either entertained carrying through those threats or really, had they thought it through, have wanted Ms Criado-Perez and Ms Creasy to have experienced such fear that they might? So why did they do it?

One factor I think is that communicating via social media de-humanises the whole thing leading people to say things that (in majority of cases) they would never dream of saying to someone's face. It's not surprising I suppose, I have, in a much less extreme example, found myself acting similarly in real life.

Last week as I was driving towards the Mersey tunnel; radio on, sun shining bright, some objectionable road user in a big black car cut me up. From the safety of my car I expressed my annoyance and the other driver let me know his thoughts. Then we all went through the tunnel. Move on to another day when I caught the train. I was just coming out of the station when some youth took me out with his trolley case. I was knocked to the ground (embarrassingly). He was very apologetic and helped me up. I tried not to cry, gracefully accepted his apology, and told him not to worry about it. Yet it was just as objectionable a situation.

What's the difference? Why did I react so differently? I think it's just the human contact. From the relative anonymity of my car and without being able to see the other driver properly I was quick to lose my rag but when I was face to face with someone who had actually caused me physical pain, I didn't react in the same way. It's not that I'm particularly timid it just felt different. And I use similar tools in the office. If I think someone has the potential to react badly to what I have to say, I go and see them in person. I just know that they won't (usually) feel comfortable being as unpleasant to me in person, as they might over the phone, or email. This same thing applies to social media. People seem to forget that they are communicating with real people (with real feeling) and that there are real consequences which might flow from statements made via social media.

Another factor is the mob mentality. Mr Nimmo's barrister said that, when his client had received responses to his original tweet and it was re-tweeted, it encouraged him to send more messages as he saw it as an "indication of popularity".

Social media creates an artificial environment where people are communicating on a larger scale on a regular basis and it's easy to get carried away by the tide and jump on the bandwagon. They are egged on and get caught up in the heat of the moment. I guess the same is true of the crowd at a football match. I'm not trying to justify anything; but it just goes to show how this relatively new platform of communication exaggerates existing behaviour still further. Of course it is also very easy to pretend to be someone else when using social media or adopt a different persona. This provides an opportunity to act in a different way from how you would in day to day life.

The added element of course with social media is that posts are there for everyone to see and even if you take them down you can be pretty sure someone somewhere has taken a screen shot. I always think of that photograph of Katy Perry which Russell Brand tweeted of her when she'd just woken up. I'm sure he apologised and he certainly took it down quickly but it was too late. It is harder to say sorry for something you've said via social media because it's harder to take it back.

The most popular excuse which seems to be put forward by people is ignorance of the law which as you know is no defence. In any event, I'm not sure that argument can have traction for much longer given all the news coverage this particular topic is receiving. Everyone must know by now that the criminal and civil law apply in this area and you can lose your job if you find yourself on the wrong side of your employer's social media policy.

Social media is here to stay but so are the problems associated with it. Some people just aren't nice and it does give them an opportunity to be offensive to a wider group of people in front of a bigger audience. Stan Collymore has recently begun to campaign for more rules and regulations in social media after being subjected to racial abuse and death threats. There is clearly no easy solution to this problem (and there might not even be a solution) but I question how long the status quo can remain given the daily reminders of people suffering abuse.