Do we deserve Twitter?

After racism and sexism have abounded on Twitter, perhaps we are not worthy of it.

Twitter has been hailed as a landmark advancement in technology and freedom of speech. Joe Public can now converse with his favourite celebrity, journalists can share their stories and MPs can communicate with their constituents like never before.

But in a world where people exploit such an open platform to flaunt blatant racism, defend a convicted rapist and betray his victim's anonymity, are we really clever enough for such a tool?

On Tuesday 27 March, 21-year-old Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in prison for inciting racial hatred moments after Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed at White Hart Lane. His comments read: “LOL. F*** Muamba. He's dead!”, followed by racist jibes at anyone who admonished him, calling them “n****r”s, “Aids ridden” and advising them to “go pick some cotton.”

All this was published on Twitter, plain for anyone with internet access to see. Whatever you may think of his sentencing – and 56 days does seem rather harsh for such a crime, community service being a far more practical approach – Stacey is clearly a racist idiot, and it was laudable that so many spoke out against him.

This weekend was a rather depressing one in terms of Twitter's trending topics. No, for once the UK feed was not dominated by One Direction or Justin Bieber, but by the defence of physical abuse. At the same time as #letchrisintotheuk – calling for the Home Office to let Rihanna-beater Chris Brown into the UK after he was banned in 2010 – was trending, so was #justiceforched and #freeched, streams of victim-blaming misogyny claiming that footballer Ched Evans, sentenced to five years for rape, was innocent. The eloquent commentariat that is the British public called Evans' 19-year-old victim a “dirty slut”, a “money grabbing slag” and a “c**t”. People who weren't in the court room and did not have access to incriminating evidence thought themselves in a better position to judge than the jury who convicted him.

Victim-blaming is never OK, and admittedly what feminists call “rape culture” does seem to have got worse in the past few years. But the fact that Twitter now makes it so easy for women haters to express their bile means that a huge number of people have access to this kind of vitriol: women, children, Evans' victim herself. Some Evans fans even thought it clever to start a kind of hate campaign against the teenager and name her; while police say they are now on the case to bring the offenders to justice, many would argue that with the information out there, the victim's life has become doubly scarred.

So is Twitter more harm than what it's worth? Perhaps it's not even an issue. The site is hardly going to be censored, and even if it was, where would the line be drawn? What of other blogs and websites bombarding the public with information that is at times racist or sexist? After being handed this platform, we're not getting rid of it any time soon.

The argument boils down to the age-old tension between freedom of speech and incitement of hatred. Why shouldn't someone who believes Ched Evans is innocent be able to express their opinion?

Many would argue that in exposing hateful comments, Twitter has revealed the true nature of societal views. It is, in many ways, like a farcical reality TV show, playing out public opinion. And with everyone watching – which they are – more and more people can be held to account if their views are offensive.

Yes, we are going through a rough patch. It's true that tweeters have a lot to learn. But to look on the bright side, showing up some people's mishaps can influence others for the better. We are yet to see if the outers of Evans' victim will be brought to justice, but the treatment of Stacey has set an example to anyone so brazen as to tweet their racism. We can only hope that we will learn how to cope with such a tool.

Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans. Photo: Getty Images
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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