‘BE careful what you tweet, because if you say something provocative you’re not going to get any sympathy if you then get abused.” Those are the words of Dr Chris Hand, a cyberpsychologist at Glasgow University who has been researching online victim-blaming.

His research made headlines last week because of that finding and another equally striking one: that a quarter of the participants in his study displayed “Dark Tetrad” personality traits: psychopathy, narcissism, sadism or Machiavellianism. Cripes.

A few caveats: the study involved 125 people, they were not a random sample, and despite the majority of Twitter users being male, the study had twice as many female participants as male ones. In order to allow comparison with previous research, participants were shown only examples of male “victims” of cyber abuse.

But leaving all that aside, I expect many of those who read the headlines – particularly those who do not themselves use Twitter – will have been unsurprised. After all, when the platform makes headlines in traditional media it is rarely for positive reasons. In a game of word association, many would doubtless pair “Twitter” with “abuse”. Those who shun social media often express bafflement that anyone would voluntarily share forthright opinions or intimate details of their lives within personal networks on Facebook, let alone to all and sundry on Twitter.

To redress the balance a little, a ray of light in the darkness. A funeral was held in the Highlands this week for a much-loved lady named Catherine who, Twitter informs us, kept the pockets of her red coat “stuffed with dog biscuits” to treat any four-legged friends she met on her travels. As her cortege passed through the town, her canine friends lined the streets to pay their respects, with red ribbons tied to their collars. So far, so heart-warming.

While they waited, someone snapped a photograph and shared it online. You might be asking if there was any need to do so. This might seem to cheapen a lovely moment. However, among those who saw it was one of Catherine’s nieces, who had been unable to travel to her funeral due to Covid restrictions but came upon the tweet by chance and was able to see how much she had meant to her friends and neighbours.

So yes, the power of Twitter can be harnessed for good, and bring people together rather than push them apart. But when even its most dedicated users – perhaps especially its most dedicated users – regularly denounce it as a “hellsite” (often while announcing they are leaving, only to quietly return a few days later), it’s clear there are deep-rooted problems.

Many people appear not just addicted to Twitter but addicted to arguing on it, even to the detriment of their health. Some act as though they have an obligation to weigh in on whatever controversy is brewing on a given day, like an army of unpaid Piers Morgans high on the buzz of perceived power and influence. It must be getting harder for doctors to identify delusions of grandeur.

READ MORE: Scottish scientists tell Twitter users not to expect sympathy in new social media research

It was via Instagram, not Twitter, that footballer and national treasure Marcus Rashford received a torrent of racist abuse last weekend, igniting fresh calls for an end to online anonymity. This can mean one of two things: a) a requirement that people post under their real names, having proven their identities or b) a system where people may use pseudonyms but must prove their real identities in order to create these accounts, meaning the authorities can trace them – via platform administrators – should they engage in any criminal behaviour.

There are numerous practical and legal obstacles to achieving either outcome. Social media sites take the privacy of their users seriously, even when those users are suspected of very serious crimes. It was only in 2019 that the UK Government reached an agreement with Facebook and WhatsApp to share communications of suspected terrorists and murderers.

It’s easy to see why those seeking to crack down on threatening and abusive behaviour online have focused on this aspect. After all, if these abusive posters could be identified, prosecuted and punished, it would send a powerful message that such behaviour is unacceptable and has consequences, wouldn’t it?

There are several flaws with that logic. Firstly, it assumes those who are abusive online are acting rationally, engaging their brains before firing off their tweets. Secondly, it assumes they understand the difference between legitimate comments and malicious/ threatening communications (in itself a huge can of worms). Thirdly, it assumes the relatively small risk of serious consequences will be an effective deterrent to the millions of people who use these platforms every day.

Of course, the police cannot possibly act on every instance of criminal behaviour online. But ending public anonymity on Twitter might mean people would be worried about fear of exposure as abusers to their friends, families and employers.

Therein lies another problem. Social media makes extra-judicial public shaming possible, but there have been many examples of lives being ruined by a relatively minor mistake “blowing up” on Twitter and being amplified by an online mob who – paradoxically – consider themselves the good guys. Which brings us back to Dr Hand’s finding that many believe those who are abused online have asked for it, and therefore deserve little sympathy.

What’s really needed here isn’t a police crackdown, but a period of reflection about the types of antisocial behaviour that have become normalised. The big problem here is that self-reflection is not the strong suit of some of the biggest personalities on Twitter. They might not be psychopaths but many clearly display narcissistic traits. Indeed – whisper it – might such traits in fact be a prerequisite for those whose relentless stoking of controversy keeps the Twitter outrage mill going?