Last week I laughed out loud listening to the BBC Radio 4 series with the brilliant British comedian David Mitchell. Its subject was whether manners are still important.  It was hilariously funny but tackled a rather important subject.

As a kid growing up in Oz my father made sure we understood that manners meant something.  Rudeness to elder relatives would be met with a wallop.  Quite rightly so.  In those un-PC days, it was not common to have your father dragged into court for giving a kid a damn good hiding for stepping severely out of line.

Civil behaviour helps everybody, I learned. It helps us all to get along on this crowded planet of ours – at home, at work, getting on with family, or doing business with complete strangers.

Mitchell being an optimistic sort of chap doesn’t subscribe to the view ‘things were so much more civilised way back then.’  He reminds us that things are actually more civilised and less violent than ever before in history.

But the great exception is the internet.  Mitchell says “We are still in the era of mediaeval barbarism, here. What we need are the equivalent of the development of chivalry and table manners for cyberspace.”

Hear hear!

As any public figure will attest, and many ordinary people too, there’s a deeply unpleasant side to the internet which seems to encourage nasty, aggressive, untrue and uncivil behaviour.

Whether you’re a vulnerable kid going through teenage years, and subject to hateful messages on Facebook, or a famous comedian simply trying to engage in healthy debate, social media allows vile abuse to hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

We’re emerging from the infancy stage of social media. We didn’t know what to make of it at first.  But it’s time to grow up and get a grip.  As the technology matures we need – as a global society – to adopt more responsible patterns of behaviour

There are even names for the sort of bad behaviour we typically see – trolling, cyber bullying and so on.  If this incredible technology is to serve us well, it need to be used in a more civilised way.

I don’t think the law is the answer.  The reason that acts of politeness and decency are so powerful is that they are freely given.  If I hold the door open for a lady, or help an old person across the road, it is meaningful for the very reason that I am not under some sort of legal compulsion to do so.

But in serious cases I do support the use of the full might of criminal law.  I was pleased to see last year’s Criminal Justice Act in the UK increase the maximum penalty to 2 years in prison for online trolls who send abusive messages, damage livelihoods, or hamper a person’s ability to lead a normal life.

And heartening that last year over 1200 people were found guilty under Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act in the UK alone.  It is a crime under the Communications Act to send “by means of a public electronic communications network” a message or other material that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character“.  That’s five internet trolls convicted daily.

In the USA the Department of Justice has sent a strong message to those who practise financial trolling – even those living outside the USA.   In November last year a Scottish man was charged for allegedly using Twitter and his various so-called ‘research firms’ to manipulate the share prices of a US company. James Alan Craig, from Dunragit in Scotland, caused shareholders to lose millions after using the social network to spread “fraudulent” information about companies. If convicted, he faces 25 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution.

Today’s rapidly changing technology brings with it new responsibility.   When the motor car displaced horses people had to learn to use the road safely and with regard for others.  Drones and UAVs are going to replace cars, and many countries are in the grip of extremely dangerous use of drones, flying near major airports, endangering passenger planes.

So let’s get responsible, people.  Let’s use this wonder technology to its potential.  Let’s communicate, and share.  Let’s teach, and learn.  But for goodness sake, let’s try to behave like the decent civilised humans we are all capable of being and are supposed to be.

As ever, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Written by David Lenigas