Donald Trump’s use of Twitter defined his presidency. His comments outraged his opponents while galvanising his political base but, in the end, his desecration of the medium may have done us all a favour by destroying any remaining vestiges of the illusion that power equates to integrity.
We live in torrid times and society has become divided, both in Europe and America. Many are so outraged by differing opinion that they are prepared to overlook democratic norms. If it took a private corporation to silence President Trump, so be it. Yes, yes, of course, we say, and that’s why, in both Europe and the United States, work is underway to control social media via legislation. Well, yes, but that starts us down a path that democracies have tried to avoid: Censorship.
I suggest that we need very little censorship. Yes I concede that there are murky areas where it may be necessary such as paedophilia but censorship should be restricted to an absolute minimum. What!? And let the bigots and morons plaster the Internet with filthy lies? Well, yes, perhaps.
When Facebook started it was a way to share pictures of your kids and cakes. Kittens and puppies became fashionable and eventually politics raised its head. It took BREXIT & Trump to fill social media with pub bores. Debate became scarce amongst the deluge of partisan ranting. Many people have withdrawn from Facebook, either through boredom or fear of abuse. The field left to boors and bigots of all persuasions.
Yes, it is ghastly. However, once you start to understand what’s happening, it’s actually quite interesting. People are becoming inured to the ranting of the white supremacist and the woke alike.
What is really astonishing is the hysterical outpourings from the great and the good. Public figures, whom we held in some esteem and whom we regarded as intelligent, informed and sober are blurting out the most preposterous drivel. Many latch onto these comments to infer that their political opinions are wrong but this is unfair.
People are succumbing to Twitter frenzy in the same was that some get addicted to eating or gambling or computer games. Twitter has found a way of hooking into their neuroses, uncovering something in their psyches which is fed by the constant sparring and, since social media has a ready supply of billions of people with whom to spar, how can one ever feel closure. “Just one more level, just one more level” and there they are at 2am, opening another bottle of wine and arguing over greenhouse gas emissions with a butane salesmen from Iowa.
When we post a comment on social media, we should ask ourselves what we are hoping to achieve. Are we hoping to convince someone of our opinion? Are we looking for an exchange of views? Is this really the medium for either? The reality is that when we post on Twitter, we invite argument with any number of billions of people with not only different opinions but different, educational levels, expertise, cultures, contexts and perspectives.
Does this matter? Not if we understand what we are doing. Ricky Gervais brilliantly pointed out that we should regard Twitter in the same was we regard the wall of a public toilet. It’s true that there may be pearls of wisdom scrawled above the urinal and while we’re taking a leak it’s vaguely entertaining to have a look but this is not the place where we should seek wisdom.
And yet supposedly intelligent and reasonable individuals with impeccable credentials are appearing as complete buffoons. Paul Mason issues marathon multi-tweet diatribes on Gramsci and the Labour tradition, AC Grayling bangs on about the EU, says he’ll never stop being angry “to the marrow of his bones”, calls Michael Gove a “little squit” and talks about hypocrisy “oozing like pus through UK politics”. Richard Dawkins posts a sarcastic anti-Christian comment in response to the tragic death of a Romanian baby during baptism. Robert Peston joins in the conspiratorial speculation about the reflection of a telephone lead in a photo of Boris Johnson. The truth is that we are all capable of tweeting drivel when we’re off guard and that is precisely the time when Twitter offers temptation.
We may have missed the real contribution social media has made to public discourse. It is a leveller. It allows multiple perspectives but we are confusing perspective with truth. Twitter has also lifted the veil on a neurotic political/media establishment. Prior to the printed word people believed all sorts of nonsense. With the advent of religious texts some standardisation of that nonsense occurred. By the late 20th century a handful of versions of the truth were disseminated by newspapers, radio and television all operated by professionals and controlled by a handful of competing vested interests. Digital media changed all that.
Two things are now happening which undermine the standardisation of truth. First the professional media has competition from those with radically different perspectives – yes, often (but not always) disseminated by unreliable and disreputable sources (a bit like the professional media). Second, social media has removed the mask of respectability previously enjoyed by professionals.
Old media was capital and labour intensive. It was mass production. It required standard processes and armies of fact checkers, ghost writers and editors. Prior to anything being placed before the public, the errors, libels and insults were carefully air brushed away so that the end result was coherent, authoritative and believable. The general public made the understandable mistake of inferring the quality of the author from the quality of the work. The authors were revered as intellectuals, motivated by reason alone but in reality their credibility rested on not just their words but the polish provided by a large organisation.
Social media has revealed to us that our God’s have feet of clay. Twitter in particular, has shown us the collective unconscious of humanity – and it’s not pretty. Perhaps the vulnerable angry inner child that lies beneath the surface of us all is more volatile in creative types? In old Fleet Street it was common knowledge who was an anti-Semite, who a Marxist and who an alcoholic but everyone was engaged in a professional ball holding exercise.
In the 21st century the inner child is given a platform on social media. The Wikipedia profiles of some of the most frequent Twitter pundits may provide some idea of their motivation. George Mombiot’s family were old style Tories. Isn’t it just possible that his relentless obsession with proving himself lies somewhere in his past? AC Grayling was brought up in the colonies. Could it be that he lives in fear of being driven out of the intellectual inner circle and back to a provincial office job? The tweets of Peter Hitchens stick steadfastly to reason as he refuses to engage in a battle of insults but even here, can we not glimpse a strategy adopted as a counterweight to a more erratic sibling?
The valuable contribution of social media is to demonstrate to Joe Public that the Emperor has no clothes. Everyone is capable of behaving like a wanker – and that’s OK! Sure this leaves those who believe that they have some important truth to tell with a challenge but that challenge is no different than it ever was. The mistake has been to become embroiled in a medium which, by its very nature, encourages bigotry and prejudice.
Way back in the earlier days of TV, news anchors were banned by their employers from speaking in public for fear that the public might confuse their private opinion with the serious business of disseminating news. There were some raised eyebrows in 1976 when BBC news reader Angela Rippon appeared as a high kicking dancer on the Morecambe and Wise Show. In 2020 Channel 4’s newsman Jon Snow claims he can’t recall appearing at Glastonbury singing “Fuck the Tories”.
The correct response to the torrent of lies and distortion appearing on social media is not to create an Orwellian and necessarily gargantuan ministry of Truth to police the billions of comments created every day. The fact that such an idea is under consideration speaks volumes on the authoritarian ambitions of its advocates.
The correct response is to be selective about the media one “consumes” and the platforms on which one comments. The intellectuals will worry that many will fail to follow this advice but this has always been true. Stupid people will always believe stupid things. Many religious beliefs when looked at from a rational perspective are ludicrous. Millions believe they’ve seen aliens. A poll in 2017 showed that 85% of British MPs don’t know where money comes from. A democracy which relies on indoctrination is no democracy at all.
The correct response to poor quality information is to double down on creating quality information. Be distinctive by maintaining journalistic standards and a commitment to open debate. Specifically any news source claiming integrity should refrain from treating obscure social media posts as a legitimate source of news – The Mail and The Guardian take note. The emotional incontinent will continue to scream into the void but, over time, humanity will become accustomed to treating social media with a pinch of salt. It’s happened before. People didn’t buy the Sunday Sport or The National Enquirer to be educated, they bought it to be entertained. When I was very young people would say, “It’s true, I saw it on television”. When I was a little older this comment would be met with derisive laughter.