Belfast Telegraph

Why society can never be saved by social networks

By Fionola Meredith

I am an endangered species — one of the few people who does not have a Facebook or Twitter account, or even a measly blog to call my own.

Well, that's not strictly true. A while ago, as an amusing experiment, and as a personal riposte to all the self-obsessed twaddle that gets pumped out on the internet, I set up a Twitter account in my dog's name.

But there's only so many times you can respond to the question ‘What are you doing now?' with the answer ‘Chasing my tail' or ‘Licking my rear end' before the fun wears off.

To me, human Twitter users are doing the same thing — constantly updating their accounts with the humdrum details of their everyday lives seems to me an inordinate waste of time.

Of course, Twitter fans counter that social networking has the potential to be an incredibly powerful political tool, or a force for social good. It's not all dumb yakking about what I ate for breakfast, or mis-spelled commentary on Wayne Rooney's hair transplant.

Look how thousands of Twitter users made a mockery of super-injunctions, ripping aside the facade of respectability covering all those celebrity cheaters.

Look how the internet has been used to organise and publicise protests in the Middle East, with Tunisian and Egyptian cyber-activists using social networks to evade surveillance and swap tips about how to dodge rubber-bullets.

Hail, Twitter, spreading democracy across the Middle East and telling us everything we need to know about Ryan Giggs' sister-in-law, right down to where she got her summer sandals. (Primark, if you're wondering.)

But something important has got trampled under the noise and sweat and fulmination of the Twitter stampede.

Something has been left lying in the gutter: dusty, battered and forgotten.

And that's the idea of truth. No wonder it's been left behind.

Truth is complicated and nuanced and hard to tease out.

Its face doesn't fit in these days of social networking mob-rule.

This point has been driven home with the news that the young Arab lesbian blogger, Amina, who was supposedly kidnapped in Syria last week, is a hoax.

Amina wasn't a ‘gay girl in Damascus', as she claimed to be, but a middle-aged American man, Tom McMaster, living in Scotland. The wave of outrage and concern at the kidnapping, the internet campaigns to release her — all for nothing.

I wonder what Sandra Bagaria, the French Canadian woman |who exchanged around 1,000 |e-mails with Amina and believed herself to be in a romantic |relationship with her, makes of it all.

The revelations about Amina have been greeted with rage, especially from genuine Syrian activists, who feel their cause has been badly undermined by the hoax.

But what did everyone expect? This is the logical outworking of an internet culture where you can assume any identity or none, spout out any kind of venomous diatribe and never have to put your name to it, or be held to account for it.

As Zoe Margolis, who became famous as the author of the erotic blog, Girl with a One Track Mind, said: “It’s much easier for people to do something anonymously and post at two in the morning and run away like a coward than to go up to somebody on the street.”

Truth was also the casualty when the super-injunctions were blown open on Twitter.

While many of the claims about adulterous celebrities appear to be correct (or at least weren't denied), some definitely weren't true, to the distress of those who were wrongly named. And the romantic idea that the Arab Spring has been driven by idealistic young people spontaneously locating their inner revolutionaries in the glorious free space offered by Twitter turns out to be a fairytale, too, when you dig a little deeper.

Sure, social networks are a useful tool, but it's the strong links built up over years between committed activists on the ground that make the difference.

It's the same with all those requests to sign online petitions against human rights abuses in various benighted parts of the world that regularly drop into my e-mail inbox.

Do the senders really think that some poor woman is going to escape being stoned to death in Iran because Cathy or Liz sitting in their conservatory in Holywood signs a petition saying that it's terribly wrong?

If you care that much about it, go out and do something in the real world.

Anything else is the equivalent of chasing our own tails.

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