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Agenda: Police must work with agencies to eradicate abuse on social media

Scotland's highest ranking police officer, Sir Stephen House, made the front page of The Herald last week stating that abusive and offensive behaviour on social media sites had replaced graffiti as a form of 21st-century vandalism.

His remarks echo comments made by the Head of the College of Policing in the UK earlier this year who claimed that at least half of calls passed to front-line officers originate from social media.

There are fewer areas of Scottish public life where this phenomenon is more apparent than sectarianism. In 2005 Nil by Mouth commissioned research highlighting the growing use of the internet as a breeding ground for sectarian abuse.

The subsequent influx of social media sites has seen this problem grow in Scotland, with news outlets having to close message boards and comments sections; public figures and members of the public being subjected to online abuse; and people losing jobs because of their online behaviour.

Much of Scotland's sectarianism is caused by people possessing a sense of cultural and religious voyeurism and an unhealthy obsession with "the other".

The internet is natural territory for these individuals as they wage their war 24 hours a day. Many still don't recognise that posting abusive or threatening content has consequences not just for the victim, but for the perpetrators themselves.

They post lying in their beds, sitting in bathrooms, or taking the bus to work, safely cosseted away from the people they are abusing. The knock on the door from the police or a newspaper seems a world away. But there are consequences back in the real world. Not least the threat of criminal prosecution.

The question is how to we challenge this behaviour?

Firstly, we focus on prevention. Over the last few years Nil By Mouth has delivered workshops and presentations to schools, colleges, workplaces, and employability courses focusing on the dangers of cyber-bigotry, using real life examples to show just how easy it is to be found and prosecuted for these offences. It's easy to view young people as whizz-kids and IT experts but in reality they often don't really understand how the internet works.

Secondly, these offences are also placing strain on the criminal justice system and many professionals working within it point to a growing research base which suggests jailing these offenders may only cause a hardening of their attitudes.

That is why Nil By Mouth agreed to work with several young people who have pled guilty to posting sectarian abuse in an effort to properly challenge attitudes and look at effective alternatives to custody.

There have been successes but also frustrations. One young man pled guilty to posting sectarian abuse towards a high-profile figure in Scottish football. Encouraged by his family, he attended several Nil By Mouth events, where he heard others talking about the impact of sectarianism on their own lives and felt the anger and sadness of victims and their families.

He was challenged on the language he used and asked if he truly understood it. The transformation in his attitudes and outlook after these sessions was striking and lessons very clearly had been learned.

The frustration? The young man in question rightly received a fine, suspended sentence and more than 100 hours' community service.

While the court recognised the impact the involvement with Nil By Mouth had on his attitudes, the range of disposals open to the sheriff did not include the individual being ordered to continue to work with us.

He cleaned up litter and painted fences instead of accompanying Nil By Mouth staff to meet other young people to highlight his experience, testify to the lessons learned and provide a warning to others at risk of going down a similar path.

Sir Stephen is right to highlight this problem but if we are serious about tackling it we need to be sure that such models of restorative justice are put in place to save "Twitter trolls" from themselves.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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