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Bully for Him
Research of new SNP members public shows Humza Yousaf's party still has a serious problem with abuse in its ranks. Will the new leader do what the last failed to do?
There has been an assumption in Scottish politics that when Alex Salmond established Alba many of the abusive trolls and ethnic nationalists left the SNP to go with him.
I’m sure it is true that some abusive nationalists with, for example, a history of misogynist abuse, labelling people as traitors and suggesting opponents should leave Scotland, have deserted the SNP for Salmond's project.
There is a deep irony in the argument that the creation of Alba has been a kind of self-cleaning process for the SNP. The same SNP figures who denied that their party ever had a uniquely bad problem with abusive extremists now tell us those extremists all left their party to join Salmond’s project.
So, how true is it that the SNP membership has been cured of its abuse problem? This research tests that out in a systematic way. The findings of our analysis of newly declared SNP members is disturbing:
The SNP has an institutional problem with the abuse of political opponents and journalists. More than a quarter of SNP members within the sample of new joiners are responsible for online abuse.
The abuse ranges from the routine labelling of politicians and journalists as traitors, to misogynistic abuse of women, and fantasizing about the execution of political opponents.
These are not only fringe characters. Some of those identified hold significant public posts or have been promoted by the SNP.
It also raises concerns about the links between bad behaviour online and offline. One new member, who we won’t name here, for legal reasons, repeatedly posted about how female politicians should be executed. Further investigation revealed suggestions that he has previously appeared in court after repeatedly stabbing his wife.
Throughout Nicola Sturgeon’s time in office, she repeatedly promised to ‘get tough’ with abusive members but failed to do so. It is now eight years since we were promised a purge of abusive members. By now it is clear that Humza Yousaf has less authority within his party but, with no prospect of independence any time soon, he also has an opportunity to signal his leadership won’t ignore the issue as has happened in the past.
Nobody is responsible for every idiot on their side of the argument. Parties can however control who is a member of their party. Everything below is available to the new SNP leadership on request, *if* they are serious about expelling the people identified. However, I am not going to waste time engaging if they will not commit to serious action. I will not help them with another PR response to what is a problem of internal policy and culture.
New Members Sample
One of the challenges in measuring the extent of abusive behaviour online is that much of the behaviour is anonymous. This makes it difficult to identify as being perpetrated by members, who the party are responsible for, rather than random supporters of the party’s agenda, whose behaviour the party is not directly accountable for.
In order to overcome this we looked for a clear identifier for someone being a member of the SNP. For this purpose, we used the suggested post that the party offers to new members when they complete their membership application. Each new member is encouraged to share the model post below, with a photograph of Humza Yousaf:
We analyzed a random sample of 100 of the most recent of these model posts. These are a mixture of brand-new members and those who have renewed after lapsing. Using Twitter’s search function, we then looked at each user’s publicly shared content to establish whether they were abusive. What we found should disturb any party genuinely committed to the norms of democratic debate.
New Blood is Not Diluting the SNP’s Abuse Problem
Our sampling discovered that an incredible 28% of those self-declared members in the sample had engaged in politically-motivated abuse of some kind.
Most common was the casual and repeated abuse of opponents and journalists as traitors. To take a few examples of abuse of journalists and opponents from the sample…
“Gordon Brown is a lying traitor. We need to rid society of his type.”
“We don’t need London-based traitors like you in our country.”
“This man is politically dangerous and an enemy of Scotland…Traitor.”
“f*** off England's STV traitors.”
These are not only fringe characters. One prominent new member, a business person highlighted by the official SNP Twitter feed, posted that a Scottish Labour politician “a traitor to Scotland.” Another new member, who holds a global business ambassador role for a SNP Government agency, spends his time online abusing journalists and politicians, including posting about assaulting them. To list just a few examples from him:
“spounging unionist #Toryscum that sit in an English servile house of traitors”
“I can do it and gladly knock 50 shades of Tory blue out of that quisling troll”
“Has there ever been such a rotten traitor to Scotland?”
“The slimy bearded ratbag is the most awful example of state apparatchik there’s ever been. A quisling, a career-centered s****hole who would sell his entire being…”
In a reminder that the othering of political opponents as traitors is dangerous rhetoric because it enables more extreme responses, some of the members posted about how opponents and journalists should be forcibly removed from Scotland or posted fantasies about post-independence executions.
“After independence every politician in Scotland allied to an English political party who refuses to accept our wishes should be strung up and put on public display for all the world to see what happens to traitors”
“BBC traitors to Scotland can be first in queue for the free courtesy flights from an Indepedent Scotland.”
“C**s like this should be banished to Englandshire come independence.”
Online Hate Doesn’t Stay There
Research suggests that online hate is linked to offline violence. For example, a major report last year was the latest to conclude that online attacks on women journalists are increasingly overflowing into offline behaviour.
In the course of sampling, we came across one particularly troubling example. The same SNP member within our sample who posted the above comment about hanging opponents has done so over and over again in different forms. He seems obsessed with the idea of executing political opponents. To quote just a few of these:
“She’s one evil bitch in need of a rope!”
“get the noose and find the nearest lamppost!”
“There's a rope with that c***s name on it.”
“Our real problem is unionist traitors in need of a rope swing!”
“All unionists need a rope swing!”
“he's a rat-arsed fascist bastard in need of a swing on a knotted rope!”
“A long rope would come in handy roundabout now!”
What is particularly disturbing about this member is that they repeatedly seem to be fantasizing about the execution of women politicians in particular. He has now been suspended from Twitter due to his extreme posting. Such was the frequency of his posts about violence that we decided to search into this member a little more.
That is when we discovered reports that this new member has appeared in court where he admitted to stabbing his wife multiple times. This allegation relates to events some time ago, and it may well be that he now claims to be a reformed character in his offline life. As such, we aren’t naming him here but can provide his details to the SNP on request. However, to see such frequent posts about executions, from someone with a seeming history of serious violence in the real world should worry everyone.
Of course, not everyone who abuses online has a history of taking that behaviour offline. Nevertheless, we have to ensure that we are creating an environment that sends the strongest possible signal that a language of hatred is not acceptable. That means that people who behave in the ways identified in this short study need to be excluded from mainstream political organizations.
Moral leadership on this issue cannot begin and end with hand-wringing and cost-free condemnation. Leaders need to expel those members from the organizations they control. I have no doubt the SNP will expel the single, especially violent-sounding member highlighted above. But that would be trimming the tree of abuse when they should be pulling it up at the roots.
An environment where your political opponents are routinely othered as traitors and enemies of Scotland make the political space dangerous. It justifies further abuse and risks worse. An environment where women are constantly abused with misogynistic terms and attacked for their appearance pushes women out of political life and enables even more dangerous behaviour.
People often ask me why I engage with abusive and extreme posts directed towards me. I don’t believe the SNP will ever take meaningful action against these people. The narrative of traitors and true Scots is too important to their political worldview and the current leadership is far too weak to challenge it. What we can do is make sure the party pay a political price for failing to police their own membership.