Martin Hannan: The trolls must quit their caves

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Be forewarned. I am going to write about the internet. It is a scary parallel universe full of strange beings involved in a quasi-religion which I call the cult of anonymity.

The cult is fast becoming pervasive in Scottish society, despite being completely anathema to this nation’s historic principles – the right to free speech, with protection against the practitioners of intimidation.

One member of the cult lives in Edinburgh, or knows Edinburgh very well, and is nothing more or less than a troll. Not so long ago, a troll was a mythical creature in Scandinavian mythology, a monster who lived in a cave. Now a troll means something slightly different – human trolls are neither mythical nor legendary, but denizens of “caves”, usually their bedrooms, where their grasp on sanity is tenuous and their only connection with the outside world is a modem and a computer.

Trolls are the scum of the internet, people with a demented understanding of reality who think that their viewpoints are actually worth comprehending. They pen their poison, usually in the most egregious personal attacks, and hope that they upset people – their raison d’être is not to express a viewpoint, but to cause annoyance.

The Edinburgh troll in particular – you know who you are – is not a very nice person. He, and it is definitely a he, masquerades under numerous pseudonyms, and makes his contributions across various internet forums, usually attacking certain politicians in the most objectionable manner possible. His way with words is distinct and disgusting.

Of course, everyone knows that particular Edinburgh troll is a notorious pervert, a person of such objectionable character that he cannot show himself in public. He is a wifebeater, a benefit cheat, a proven criminal with an appalling record and an all-round swine. So sue me, Edinburgh troll. Oops, you’re anonymous, and you can’t defame an anonymous person. And that is the problem. The internet is the most powerful force for positive change – as the Arab Spring showed – that the world has seen in decades, but with every passing day the web is becoming thirled to the cult of anonymity.

I used to ignore anonymous contributions as a matter of course, believing that such people – who rarely have good reasons for their namelessness – are not worth listening to. But the cult of anonymity now really irritates me and many millions of people, for it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between trolls and people with a genuine point to make.

Those of us who put our names (and unfortunately our faces) to our columns have one significant advantage over those trolls who parade their intolerant prejudices while remaining anonymous. We have the courage of our convictions. Trolls do not.

Yet trolls and even sensible people demand the right to be anonymous, and to have their anonymity preserved as in a cult where everyone wears masks or hoods. They are the Ku Klux Klan of the internet – they fear that exposing their own identities will see them shunned and ridiculed.

Anonymity on the web is damaging debate in so many ways. It is now apparently permissible to post completely obnoxious lies about people, usually with the proviso that no-one ever, ever, reveals your name. Idiots – they really believe in data protection laws. Ask the people convicted for organising riots in England or perpetrating sectarian filth in Scotland just how “protected” they were.

Recently, there has been much focus on cybernats, people who support the cause of Scottish independence and are either members of the SNP – like myself – or who are at least fellow travellers. Nationalists have taken to the internet to state their views because so many newspapers – this one an honourable exception – are perceived to ban pro-SNP sentiments.

They really got under the skin of the outgoing and not much lamented Labour leader Iain Gray, who had a final pop at them. With all due respect to the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow Mr Gray, being lectured by the Labour Party on the morals of political debate is akin to being given lessons in diplomacy by Vladimir Romanov.

Yet there is a problem. Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s warning this week that political debate is becoming more crude and therefore turning off the electorate is well made, though a lesson in democracy from a prince of the most hierarchical religion on the planet is a trifle illogical. Still, at least he put his name to his view.

As happened in the Arab Spring, it was only when people set aside their computers and showed their faces in demonstrations that great changes were won. That courage is what we need in Scotland now.

So in the first instance, I must ask my fellow nationalists to show discipline at this important time – personal abuse must cease, or else cybernats will become the story, rather than the push for independence.

Everyone who cares about the proper conduct of debate in the body politic in Scotland should do the following: until everyone who wishes to state an opinion on the internet openly uses his or her name, we should ignore their bleatings, as I intend to do.

The cult must end. Anonymity must end. Let debate in Scotland be open and civilised. The future is too important to be left to the nameless.