One of the long-term goals of Wings Over Scotland is to put itself out of a job. By teaching people how to read newspapers in such a way as to understand what they’re NOT telling you, and to be wise to methods they use to create completely false ideas while not actually saying anything untrue, one day we’ll hopefully reach a situation where there’s no need for us to exist and we can go on holiday or something.
There’s a nicely subtle example of the craft of malicious spin in today’s Scottish Daily Mail, but it also sharply illustrates another toxic aspect of the media’s coverage of the independence debate – the rise of the phantom.
We were contacted by the Mail yesterday in relation to this story. We gave them a quote and it was duly covered in this morning’s paper, albeit in passing in a piece focusing on threats apparently made against Dunfermline Labour MSP Cara Hilton.
“CYBERNATS abused an MSP on Twitter and threatened her children – just days after the Queen called for ‘healing’ in the referendum debate.
Labour’s Cara Hilton, who was recently elected MSP for Dunfermline replacing disgraced wife beater Bill Walker, was called ‘Judas’ and a ‘moron’ online.
One person wrote: ‘I know where you live and where you go with your children on Saturdays.’
Meanwhile, a prominent ‘cybernat’ has been told living in Bath will not ‘shield him from the sound and the fury’ in a tweet by a Conservative councillor.
Stuart Campbell, an official campaigner for Yes and founder of the Wings Over Scotland blog, said he had previously contacted police about online threats – but it was even more ‘sinister’ when it came from an elected representative.”
We’re not fussed about the second billing. Our reaction on reading the story was mainly great anger at the individual who’d made such a vile threat to Ms Hilton and her family, and we resolved to electronically give them a piece of our mind. Quite aside from the repellent nature of doing such a thing, after all, it hardly does the Yes campaign any favours to hand such ammunition to the No side and a hostile press.
Being called rude names by internet nutters is a hazard of the job whether you’re a politician or a writer and shouldn’t be whined about, but implied threats of violence are where abuse crosses the line, and involving someone’s children is beyond the pale.
But there were two other disturbing aspects to the piece. One was that under a banner headline blaming “cybernats” for the utterly despicable threat against the Hiltons, I was then immediately described as a “cybernat” too, despite also being the subject of a threat in the story.
That’s actually quite a subtle piece of smearing by the Mail’s standards, which usually attacks rather more directly and is rarely shy of naming names.
And that was the second troubling thing. The person who’d allegedly threatened Ms Hilton wasn’t named. When we searched Twitter for anyone talking about her children so that we could upbraid them in no uncertain terms, there was no sign of the tweet.
Nor could we find any tweets from the MSP referring to this threat. There was no reply to the supposed “cybernat” saying “How dare you threaten my children?”, no mention of anyone having menaced her or them. Indeed, she’s never used the word “threat” in her entire Twitter history.
You might think that someone receiving such a vile comment would at least refer to it in some way. It would be the obvious and natural human reaction to say “Someone’s just threatened my kids – how disgusting” or similar, perhaps retweeting the offending comment by way of illustration.
But while Ms Hilton declined to either involve the police in this serious matter or mention the incident on the social-media site itself, she seemingly DID consider the matter significant enough to rush to the press with.
A front-page splash in yesterday’s Courier saw Ms Hilton and Labour MP Thomas Docherty repeat the allegations, and lay the blame firmly at the door of the SNP:
“The most recent attack — which compared her to convicted predecessor Bill Walker — left her ‘shocked and upset’ and prompted Dunfermline and West Fife MP Thomas Docherty to ask Peter Grant, the leader of Fife Council’s SNP group, to take action.
Speaking exclusively to The Courier Mrs Hilton said: ‘Sadly, I don’t think I’m getting any different kind of online attacks from cybernats than anyone else who dares to question them, or speak up for those who don’t agree with their brand of politics.’
‘You only have to read the newspapers to see the kind of online reaction that active cybernats across Scotland are capable of, often with foul, abusive or derogatory language. This seems a deliberate attempt to curb free speech and, as the referendum approaches, their nasty and personal attacks will no doubt intensify.’
Mrs Hilton, who works between 60 and 70 hours a week to represent her constituents, said she was incredibly proud to be an MSP.
‘I suspect many SNP members are equally appalled by the abusive and personal attacks,’ she said”
The Courier’s story didn’t frame Ms Hilton’s allegations as “claims”, but rather reported them – as the Mail does today – as empirical and unquestioned facts:
“New Fife MSP Cara Hilton, pictured, has revealed she is coming under increasingly personal attacks from opposition supporters. The Labour politician, who won the Dunfermline seat after a fierce battle with the SNP in last October’s by-election, has even had her children threatened.”
Yet not a single shred of evidence exists. As with numerous other media tales of “vile cybernat abuse”, most infamously the case of Susan Calman and the mythical “death threats” which even the comedian herself didn’t claim to have seen, completely unsupported assertions are presented as things which definitely happened.
Last week we noted the Telegraph doing the same thing, with alleged and unproven abuse against the “Vote No Borders” campaign group by unnamed “cybernats” presented as undisputed fact while the paper cast unwarranted doubt on actual, verifiable attacks on Yes-campaign donors Chris and Colin Weir by a Tory MSP.
Today the Mail buries an equally visible threat by a Tory councillor – which he admitted making and hasn’t deleted from his Twitter account, but brushed off in the Mail piece as “light-hearted” – while headlining as fact ones claimed by a Labour MSP which nobody can find, and which she never mentioned on Twitter or reported to the police but has used in two newspapers to attack the SNP, despite there being nothing to link the supposed comments to the party.
(Indeed, we can find no evidence supporting any of Ms Hilton’s claims. She told the Mail that she’d been called a “Judas”, and that “There was another one where they said my children must be ashamed of me. That really upset me”, but Twitter’s advanced search facility returns nothing for either.)
If the “cybernat” problem is as bad as the media and the No campaign would have you believe, people might be forgiven for finding it strange that so many of these cybernats are as elusive as ghosts, vanishing without trace from the internet – a difficult task under any circumstances – before anyone’s so much as managed to grab a screenshot of their comments or write down their usernames.
We hope readers don’t lie awake at night in fear, knowing that phantoms are abroad.