Twitter is the self-styled “micro-blogging” facility in which anyone can say literally anything, provided they do it in 140 characters or fewer. It has some benefit as a marketing tool – as does anything which is seen by a lot of people – but it is neither policed nor filtered and is as a result the mouthpiece for every xenophobe, misanthrope and sociopath from the president of the United States downwards.
The requirement for brevity plays into the hands of the so-called trolls: the gratification is instant and literacy unnecessary.
Yet – and I am afraid the media must take much of the blame for this – the effluent that spews from Twitter is allowed to feed into the national debate on a scale out of all proportion to its content. It’s become the de facto straw poll on everything, not because it is scientific or balanced, but because it is loud.
The result is that genuine opinion formers – politicians, especially – are sucked into it, believing it is expected of them and fearing being left out. But in putting their heads above the parapet, they expose themselves to a level of vitriol and downright abuse which would be simply intolerable anywhere else.
This week, Sheffield United’s captain, Billy Sharp, became the latest public figure to fall victim, receiving hateful messages about his late baby son, from a fan of a rival team.
Ed Sheeran, the pop star originally from Halifax, had earlier announced that he’d had enough, complaining that Twitter offered “nothing but people saying mean things”.
John Bishop, a comedian well used to handling hecklers, was moved to say that when trolls were handed a forum to abuse people he loved, it was time to leave.
And the TV presenter Rylan Clark-Neal said the homophobic abuse being thrown at him was “out of control”.
More seriously still, the mother of the murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne was subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment by people whose motivation I cannot even begin to comprehend.
The police have the power to act in the most serious cases, but it is not practical for them to track down every outcast, and policing Twitter is not a valid use for a public resource. When officers patrol a football match, the club pays for them to be there.
Besides, the police themselves are not untainted. Several in Northern Ireland are under investigation this week for alleged racist trolling.
I honestly don’t know why we have as a society become complicit in such a concentrated culture of abuse. But I do know how we can stop it.
It would take only one instruction to a lawyer by a politician, researcher or other professional who had tweeted because it was part of his or her job and who had been subjected to personal abuse as a result, to set off a chain of events that would cause the system to crumble within days.
A test case – not against Twitter itself but against an employer, for failing in its “duty of care” to protect someone from abuse in the extended workplace – would see every HR manager in the land pulling up the drawbridge as a defence against copycat suits, and declaring tweeting banned in company time.
The original case would take years to resolve and may or may not succeed, but it would no longer matter, because by then Twitter would have been reduced to a political rally with no politicians, a pop concert with no star. The rabble could barrack to its heart’s content but it would be a sideshow. No one would listen, no one would care.
There is no rational argument against taking such a course, except, perhaps, from marketeers. No civil liberties would harmed but an important one – the right to personal protection – would be enshrined.
Yes, Twitter’s value on the stock market would suffer, but it has only ever been a house of cards: it loses money hand over fist. For all our sakes, it’s time to cut those losses.
It’s the company’s own fault: it opened a shop and let everyone help themselves to the merchandise in the belief that it would be used responsibly. They didn’t factor in human nature.