I am writing this from a coffee shop in Edinburgh.
Half the people in the room are tapping away on laptops, smartphones or tablets.
Who knows what they’re doing. Some might be emailing clients. Others will be checking Facebook. At least one might be updating a Tumblr dedicated exclusively to Photoshops of Jim Murphy as a sexy cowboy with a strategically placed six-shooter.
Some might even be tweeting about Scottish politics and doing so in a less than constructive manner.
The downside of a world in which everyone is connected to the internet and can become a commentator, entertainer, and publisher in just 140 characters is that problematic word “everyone”.
There is no filter online. People who want to share pictures of family holidays or a blog on welfare reform are on an equal footing with those who long to open everyone’s eyes to the international Zionist conspiracy to conceal the truth about shape-shifting lizards and the spaceships they’re hiding at Area 51.
The latter are part of what commentators term “the digital underclass”. They are as deprived of behavioural norms and shared inferences as the economic underclass are of resources and opportunities.
In Scotland, this stratum finds most notorious expression in cybernattery, the often belligerent, endlessly paranoid, and pungently abusive prosecution of the case for Scottish independence. Cybernats come from all walks of life, social indices, and educational levels but share a commitment to the SNP that borders on the Branch Davidian.
Opposition politicians are accused of disloyalty and journalists pronounced lackeys of a Labour establishment that, despite eight years of SNP government and 95% of Scotland’s Westminster seats, they are convinced still exists.
Nicola Sturgeon has written a column for the Daily Mail, later reproduced on the SNP website, warning party members to toe the line in online communications.
This is just the latest occasion on which she has had to condemn cybernattery, an area where she has been much more alert and responsive than her predecessor.
She writes: “Obviously, I can’t police Twitter single-handedly. I follow 3500 people and am followed by almost 230,000 – I can’t personally keep track of everything that is said. But when tweets or postings from SNP members that cross the line are brought to our attention, we will act – as we have done before.
“That is why I am making clear today that the SNP will take steps to warn those whose behaviour falls short of the standards we expect. We will tell them to raise their standard of debate, to stick to issues, not personalities, and to ensure robust and passionate debate takes precedence over abuse and intemperate language.
“And I am also making clear that, where appropriate, we will take disciplinary action. In the SNP we have a code of conduct and online guidance for our members. Where that code is broken, members should have no doubt that we will use our disciplinary processes.”
The First Minister has acted against Twitter heavies in the past and those who fall victim to them will welcome her sensible remarks.
The fact she finds herself here again is not cause to doubt her sincerity; she appears genuinely appalled by cyberslime. The question is whether her supporters think she is serious.
Given Sturgeon’s repeated denunciation of Twitter trolls, the persistence of some Nationalists in this behaviour indicates they either have no respect for their leader or don’t believe that Sturgeon, in her heart of hearts, really disagrees with them.
Since she is phenomenally popular inside (and outside) her party, the former possibility seems unlikely. So we are left with the conclusion that some of her most fiery partisans reckon she is with them and just spinning a line to the media. She MUST know Jackie Baillie hates Scotland. She’s too wonderful not to.
If this is the case, it seems likely Nicola Sturgeon will find herself back in this situation. Next week, next month, maybe in the run-up to the Holyrood 2016 elections, someone with a “Saor Alba” Twitter profile will make a hideous statement and we’ll be back here all over again.
Since I know the First Minister would rather get on with running the country, and I and many other journalists would rather be holding the SNP to account on its policies and record in government than writing endless process stories, I’m going to make a suggestion.
Sturgeon should give a speech that lays down the law to the cybernats in no uncertain terms. That means telling them not merely that what they are saying is obnoxious but completely at odds with what the SNP believes. The aim should not be to hush them up but to force them out.
Given the SNP’s poll numbers, and the repeated insistence that it is only a tiny number of trolls involved, she could easily afford to alienate them. Indeed, she would strengthen her party and perhaps bring yet more people into it by booting the bullies out the door.
Neil Kinnock’s strategy for rooting out the Militant Tendency from 1980s Labour was, as Roy Hattersley once put it, “detaching the illegitimate left from the acceptable left”. Sturgeon should adopt a similar approach to cleave sensible nationalists, good-natured trouble-makers, and the incipient alternative media from the poison-pushers.
She should court sympathetic outlets like Wings over Scotland, CommonSpace, andNewsShaft in much the same way that editors and columnists from the print media are courted. Off-the-record briefings, exclusive stories, and mutually beneficial relationships should be offered.
There is a risk associated with this, of course, but by reaching out to the very best of pro-SNP and pro-independence media, the SNP could help shape the online discourse in a more positive direction. They could also head off future discontent with the party amongst outlets with significant influence over members and supporters.
As for the illegitimate elements in online Nationalism, she should dedicate her speech to telling them where to go.
She could say: “The problem with cybernats is that they’re all cyber and not enough Nat. Sniping at Margaret Curran on Twitter might be some people’s idea of a fun Saturday morning but I’ll stick to meeting voters and trying to win them over ahead of next year’s election.
“Those who see the world in brutal black and white should understand that they are in the minority. Don’t take my word for it. Go knock some doors. Meet the public. Listen to their concerns and needs. They’re not talking about liars and sell-outs. They’re talking about jobs and schools and living under Tory austerity.
“They’re not as fanatical as you and our country is all the better for that.
“Kezia Dugdale and I disagree passionately on Scotland’s constitutional future and we will go on debating our differences. But she loves Scotland and has our country’s best interests at heart every bit as much as me. If you think she doesn’t, if you call her a traitor or a quisling – don’t vote SNP. We don’t want you.
“I think Ruth Davidson is wrong on public spending and welfare and a hell of a lot in between. She’s a Conservative and I will always oppose that party’s agenda. But she is a committed public servant who wants to make Scotland a better place just as much as me. If you think she doesn’t, if you tell her she should go live somewhere else, if you send her homophobic abuse on Twitter – don’t vote SNP. We don’t want you.
“Journalists are not the enemy. They are not part of a cabal or a conspiracy. They are men and women doing an important job – holding politicians to account on behalf of the voters. That includes the SNP, for we know that parties and governments under-scrutinised quickly turn complacent and error-prone. Sometimes the media get it wrong; some outlets are unfair or driven by an agenda. But they do not deserve insults and attacks. If you think they do – don’t vote SNP. We don’t want you.
“The SNP doesn’t want you and we don’t want your vote because you don’t share our values. I would sooner see Scotland remain part of the Union than become independent on your terms. An independent Scotland will be born in hope and common purpose, not rancour and recriminations.
“Robust debate is fine. Indeed, it’s essential. Taking on the scare stories and relentless negativity of the Unionist parties is important. And we should speak with passion unbounded when we present our case for Scotland to make its own decisions and choose the kind of country we want to be.
“That is what the SNP is about. We are a party of government, not an online fan club for political delinquents. Anyone who has a problem with that – there’s the door.”
If someone in this cafe was tweeting abuse at Kezia Dugdale and they heard the First Minister make a speech like that, they would slam down their phone and pledge never to vote SNP again.