There is only one way to put manners on social media sites over online abuse, and that is by hitting them in the pocket
If politicians want to put an end to the cyber trolls, then they'll have to come up with realistic proposals, says Eilis O'Hanlon
There are times when calling social media a cesspit would be unfair to sewers. The drains exist to get rid of filth, not make more of it. Twitter and Facebook, by contrast, have increasingly become a toxic breeding ground for people who think that having their own account gives them permission to insult, slander, threaten and otherwise make life miserable for anyone with the misfortune to get on their wrong side.
No wonder many well-meaning people have concluded that something must be done. Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie is one of them. After figures were unveiled this week showing that almost 5,000 offences relating to social media were reported to the PSNI in the last year - nearly 100 a week - he called for more resources to be made available to police to tackle the problem and for those found guilty of misusing such websites to be banned from opening accounts in future. SDLP MLA Colin McGrath agrees and wants it made easier to trace the identity of people who use the internet for malicous ends.
At first glance it's hard to disagree. Everyone in the public eye to any degree, large or small, knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of unwelcome comments and attention; if you're a woman, suggestive remarks about your appearance, or personal life are an added nuisance.
But what can be done about it, really? The idea of banning people from the internet is a fantasy; the internet is not the sort of thing that you can be excluded from in this day and age. Even barring them from certain social media sites wouldn't work. Fake email addresses can be set up within seconds and then the culprit's back on Twitter, raring to go again.
Insisting that users can only open accounts in their own name wouldn't be right, either. Lots of people have perfectly legitimate reasons to be anonymous online. It's not always a sign that they're up to no good and taking away from everyone the right to be nameless just to stop the spiteful minority would be using a sledgehammer to crack a few nuts.
It also sounds like a policing nightmare. Currently there are 21 dedicated PSNI officers working to tackle this problem. That could easily be increased, but if the resources are there then wouldn't it be better to spend it on tackling old-fashioned crime and terrorism, rather than tracking down those who are rude to other people on Facebook?
Because that's another problem. Putting more resources into controlling the internet would simply encourage people to make trivial complaints. Politicians and journalists often protest that they've been the victims of appalling abuse on social media. Some are, former Royal Irish Rangers captain Beattie included. In most cases, though, there's usually plenty of passionate invective and unkind comments and four letter words, but rarely anything that's actually illegal.
It feels horrible when you're in the middle of a flood of attacks, but there's no such thing as a right not to be insulted, mocked or offended, and expecting the police to swoop in to deal with it would simply distract them from tackling more serious crimes. There are already laws against defamation, bullying and threats of violence. New ones aren't the answer.
Even if something could be done, should it? The growth of social media has exposed an ugly side of human nature, but it was always there. The only difference is that now we get to see and hear it in all its full, inglorious nastiness. Imagine there were machines which could eavesdrop on what people are saying about you privately. Imagine the awul things you'd hear.
Well, there are. They're called Twitter and Facebook and it can be extremely hurtful and unpleasant to be exposed to those whispers; but it's something we're all going to have to learn to live and deal with, because technology doesn't uninvent itself and every advance in the means of communication inevitably changes the way we interact with each other.
Not always for the better, either. We once lived in a more deferential age, where people were more understanding of those in high places.
Now we've gone to the other extreme and can contact celebrties directly to tell that they're talentless wastes of oxygen, or even to accuse prominent people of unspeakable crimes without any proof.
That's not healthy, either, but it's probably irreversible.
Ultimately, given a straight choice between allowing or stifling free speech, the best option is always to plump for freedom and then look for imaginative ways to deal with problems as they arise.
That's the real issue. If I said something defamatory or threatening right now, the Belfast Telegraph would be held accountable. Twitter and Facebook have no similar responsibility for what's said under their banner because, due to some convenient legal loophole, they're not deemed to have published the content, they're simply hosting it.
That's fair enough in one sense, in that millions of messages are posted every minute and they can't be expected to check every single one, but newspapers have got into legal trouble for comments posted by readers below articles and many have been forced to close their comments sections as a result and, if they have legal responsibility for those, then why shouldn't social media sites? Nothing will improve until a legal method is found to make social media sites more accountable.
Human nature isn't going to change and the police have enough to be doing, so if politicians want to put manners on the internet then they're the ones who need to come up with realistic proposals to do so.
They're the legislators, after all. Thus far, their only suggestions have been to more severely punish individual users for their behaviour. That's like bailing out a sinking boat with a teaspoon.
There are too many raging keyboard warriors to tackle one by one and usually it just means that a few socially isolated misfits with mental health problems end up behind bars, rather than getting the help they clearly need.
If, on the other hand, MLAs, MPs and others could come up with enforceable strategies to make social media sites answerable for what goes on under their own digital roofs, then those billion dollar enterprises would very soon discover a desire to do something about it, instead of ignoring the problem, as they do now. They'd employ more people to crack down on and remove the most offensive content, as well as dealing more quickly with complaints and bar persistent offenders.
Only when it starts to hurt them in the pocket will internet giants stop passing the buck. Politicians, it's over to you.