Mike Weatherley, the MP for Hove, will be on Team Rock Radio today at noon presenting heavy metal for two hours. But that's enough free advertising. On a more sombre note, he has received a death threat on Twitter, according to today's Daily Mail. "He received the message "Kill Weatherley" from a twitter user, it reports. Weatherley said: "There is absolutely no way that I will allow this intimidating kind of behaviour to change my stance on this matter, as I will continue to stand up for gay rights both in Russia and around the world." (He had written to David Cameron to complain about anti-gay leglisation passed by the Duma.)
Is the Hove MP over-reacting? I don't think so. Most readers of this site would be more than mildly discombobulated were someone to say "Kill Smith" (for example) on a radio station with some 500 million listeners, especially if they did so anonymously. The comparison is in order. Twitter is essentially a broadcast system. You join it, and broadcast messages – tweets. It is true that no-one is obliged to read them, and that you aren't obliged to read anyone else's. But you might not take such an airy view were someone to tweet the word "kill"…and then to tweet your name next.
It is also true that no-one is forced to join Twitter. But, once again, matters aren't quite so simple. Whether we like it or not, social media and the net is part of the way we live now. Older people are more at ease with Facebook, or commenting on websites; younger ones flock to Twitter or experiment with, say, Ask.fm – which is also in the news for malign reasons. Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on this site which was mildly critical of UKIP. It got over 600 comments. I also broadcast a link on Twitter. It received fewer than five responses. We are all online now – however different our means of doing so may be.
None the less, a difference between writing formally and informally is rooted in human behaviour – especially if the former is cloaked in anonymity. People punch out texts and tap out private e-mails with a carelessness that they wouldn't dream of employing were they sending an e-mail on behalf of their firm or even speaking face-to-face with someone (hence, presumably, the joys of "sexting"). T.S Eliot described "The Waste Land" as "just a piece of rhythmical grumbling". Many people treat social media in much the same way. That doing so is no protection from legal action is a lesson inflicted by the courts on Sally Bercow, and a warning to the rest of us.
"Twitter" suggests that one can tweet with no consequences – after all, that's what birds do – but it ain't necessarily so. So if you can't stay off social media, how best to deal with it? The question is a particularly sharp one for young people and women. Some young people will be especially vulnerable to abuse. And since most of the threats of violence seem to come from men, the implications for women are obvious and alarming. But there isn't a catch-all solution to the problem of trolls – and by a troll I mean a person who is abusive, not a person who disagrees with me – let alone one that can be imposed by new legislation or voluntary controls.
On Twitter, for example, the best protections from abuse are common sense, the law…and something called the block button. Common sense tells one not to get too jumpy if some loser with followers in two figures is less than complimentary. The police and the law are there if the same person (or someone else) resorts to death threats. Finally, a hint to the perplexed: the block button can come in extremely useful. I use it frequently, even with abandon. There is no map with which to negotiate the perils of life without hazard – including Twitter and all the rest of social media.