Opinion: how the internet can turn nice people nasty

The Internet can be a nasty place at times, either with jabbering monomaniacs of Comment is Free threatening to collapse in on themselves and create a pit of nihilistic despair which will consume the Earth long before the Large Hadron Collider ever does; to minor local disputes or questionable professional decisions which flash around the world quicker, and generating more anger than reports of Frankenstein’s monster lurching towards the village.

Secure behind our computer screens, we can descend into an accentuated form of road-rage safe in the knowledge that we do not even have to worry about our opponents emerging from their cars and dragging us out of ours. Nasty people always will be nasty, but there is the danger of otherwise pleasant people becoming nastified: and when even Mumset becomes a playground of abuse, a problem should be clear.

One professional victim of such cyber-mob was Andrea Charman. As the headteacher of Lydd Primary School on Romney Marsh in rural Kent, she was responsible for a school-farm intended to acquaint children with the farm life which surrounds them. As available space shrank, and to introduce children to the reality of whence their shop-bought meat comes, in 2009 Charman petitioned pupils and staff about the fate of Marcus the Romney Sheep. A clear vote was given for Marcus to be sent to the same place which they got their shop-bought meat from.

Unfortunately, just as ease of use on the Internet has encouraged nastiness, the free availability of information has inculcated a desire for totalitarian control of a discussion. Writ large, this might be continuing to declare as “illegal” a war which ended anywhere between five and seven years ago, which received majority support of the British public and was made legal by a vote in the House of Commons (saying nothing about my personal support for it, like).

In Andrea Charman’s case, this involved the minority opponents of Marcus’ fate launching Internet campaigns, such as a Facebook group which wished to “Protect our kids from the pain that lydd children went through”, or an online petition which thought Downing Street would support her removal “in order to save any more animals”.

Charman went on to receive personal abuse from as far afield as California – including “i’m gonna spit on her grave (thats gonna be very soon)” and threats to burn down the school. With the maelstrom of hate not abating even after Marcus was slaughtered, she resigned citing a desire for the school to function normally, despite having continued to received the overwhelming support of staff and pupils.

Thus, I am quietly satisfied to see that Charman will return to her position after the Easter holidays, and there are allegations on the above Facebook group that complaints are pending against its conduct.

As I originally was reading about Lydd Primary, a situation at a school in my area had the potential to nastify in the same way. Before the break-up for the Christmas holidays at Castletown Primary in Caithness, a case of “extreme soiling” was discovered in the girls’ toilets for Primaries 1 to 5. Faced with the possibility of one girl being in great discomfort, but unable to identify her, headteacher, Sheila Malcolm and another female member of staff took each girl in those classes aside, and saw that they quickly lowered their underwear.

A letter of explanation was sent to all parents, but when the story was reported, there were immediate calls from individual parents for her defenestration; both in interviews to the local newspaper, and the safety of Internet comments boxes.

Although I have no children or relatives at Castletown Primary, I understand Malcolm is a popular and competent headteacher; as even parents typically calling for her removal conceded.

A Highland Education Authority inquiry should shortly confirm its findings, and my view is that although this may have been crassly handled, it was an extraordinary situation. I have seen no coherent alternative suggestions as to what could have been done. One parent was of the opinion that a simple smell-test could have identified those responsible: although, I am unsure how this could have been effected without causing even greater trauma.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Suffield 8th Apr '10 - 2:03pm

    PA said it more succinctly: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/

    Incidentally, that’s not what “illegal war” means. International law holds that any war that is neither fought out of self-defence, nor sanctioned by the UN security council, is a “war of aggression”, and as such a war crime according to the Nuremberg precedent. No amount of popular support or votes in Parliament can change this; World War 2 received both of these, and was still ruled to be an illegal war. That’s pretty much the reason why we have this international law, since a war which was not sanctioned by the government of the aggressor could be tried in that country’s own courts. In the case you are referring to, there is a dispute as to whether it was really sanctioned by the security council (some of the members say it was, some say it was not). The UN has not yet ruled on this dispute. It is politically complicated to make progress on this issue.

    The significance of the war possibly being illegal is that if the UN does find it to be such, then Bush and Blair can both be prosecuted for war crimes, along with a selection of their government ministers and military. It is normal for a war to be over when this happens. International law has no power to stop a war or to provide equitable relief between nations, only to prosecute those individuals responsible, and this process typically takes decades to resolve.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Apr '10 - 11:01am

    While there are many complex legal questions surrounding the subject, the point remains that Parliament does not have the authority to declare a war legal in this context, and there exists a legitimate possibility that it could be found illegal. Whether or not that will happen is impossible to predict.

    Specifically, I draw your attention to #2 of the Nuremberg principles:

    The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.

    A “war of aggression” is defined by the Nuremberg precedent (the UN efforts to legislate a more complete definition going nowhere, due to the US blocking it). It’s a specific legal thing. Wars which don’t fall under that heading are not somehow “better”, they’re just impossible to prosecute for war crimes.

    Now, if you simply don’t believe in the rule of law, and think that people should be entitled to do whatever is popular and/or within their military power to do, that’s another matter.

  • Helena Sierakowska 24th Apr '10 - 10:54am

    Dear Alec,
    I am replying to your posting 8 April regarding Norman Macleod of Wick coastguard . You are misinformed . The member of the public who “complained” did not complain about Norman Macleod swearing. He was complaining about Norman’s Sector managers( Sandy Taylor) behavior towards Norman in public and during the search.
    Sandy Taylor has been backed up by the Coastal safety manager Ian Burgess and it is rapidly becoming clear to me that these two men are on a campaign to remove any volunteers from their posts who disagree with them. Coastguard volunteers have no right of appeal and can be sacked on the spot. A similar incident occured at the Stornoway coast guard just over two years ago resulting in the loss of another very highly experienced and dedicated men.
    In the last 3 years we have now lost 18 persons from the Coastguard in Northern Scotland on the whim of Taylor and Burgess. I do not think this in in the interest of public safety and it is my opinion that it is Mr.Taylor’s and Mr.Burgess’s behavior that needs to be investigated . The public are very angry and this is reflected in some of the comments on the Facebook group.
    I would also like to draw your attention to a comment made by Bill MacFadyen( Regional Director MCA Scotland) during an STV inerview on April 9th.
    ” Over the peice there have been a number of occasions where Mr.Macleod’s behavior has not been what we would have expected from a volunteer” . Norman has never to my knowledge had a complaint made against him . Infact he has an exemplary record and I find Mr. Macfadyen’s comments are verging on slanderous.
    Taylor , Burgess and MacFadyen are part of the big boys club culture within the MCA who seem to think they can treat people as they wish. This needs to be addressed and I think the time is ripe for reform within the MCA if they are not to completely loose public confidence.

  • John Macleod 25th Apr '10 - 12:40am

    Re- Helena 24/4/10. With the up and coming election fast approaching and local LIB DEM MP John Thurso seeking to be re-elected in Mr Macleods “own backyard” (Caithness and Sutherland) I’d suggest that you guys take heed of the electorates opinions and feelings or have you forgotten what the DEM stands for in LIB DEM?.

  • John Macleod 25th Apr '10 - 4:19am

    Alec, Thank you first of all for replying with such grace. I am indeed Mr Macleods eldest son and have never been a Coastguard although I do remember as a child being frightened as my Grandfather, Father and uncles raced to pull on their boots and flagged down passing cars to get to their point of call on nights where no sane person would dare tread. Wick is a close community not unlike many others around our country, it’s easy to forget where the “grassroot” support comes from amongst so much “Newspeak”. Social networking is the medium of the masses in our times, to dismiss the opinions of well over 2000 people such as has been said here is risking political damage on a wide scale.

  • John Macleod 26th Apr '10 - 2:47am

    Alec, You fail to understand my point, Helena and Maree are doing a sterling job filtering “abuse” from heartfelt anger over this situation. Everyone who has supported this group comes from all walks of life, they may use colourful language at times and may not use “correct grammar” but they all have a vote. I was drawn here by your very casual comments over something that has enraged a community. A community that are about to put pen to paper in the oncoming elections, a community that has a Lib Dem MP seeking re-election. Your message has been sent, shared, forwarded, commented on, e-mailed and attached by a sizeable amount of this community.

  • Martin Alexander 27th Dec '12 - 12:23pm

    Hi Alec,

    If you’re the same Alec who has posted comments about North Korea on the Guardian’s CIF, please contact me at Martin at Alexander dot Org or Editor at AsiaLiteraryReview dot Com



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