Belfast Telegraph

I love Twitter, but the noise, nastiness and nonsense is dangerous

 

Politics has never been for the faint-hearted, but the social media platform is now threatening public life, argues David Gordon.

Is Twitter helping to wreck politics and government? It's a question worth asking. We are definitely living through very strange times, politically speaking. Established wisdom, expert opinion, seemingly safe predictions - all can be dumped out of the window in the blink of an eye.

So how big a role is Twitter playing in this febrile age? I'm not saying it's the sole cause of the mess or even necessarily the main factor. But it's part of the story.

But let me start with a confession. My name is David and I'm a Twitter addict. Most days, I'm checking my Twitter feed almost constantly through every waking hour. It's been a great resource for a politics junkie and an obsessive football fan.

You can keep up to date with the latest breaking news, speculation, transfer rumours. You can share informative analysis and opinion pieces from top writers across the globe.

It's like having your own newswire - updated round the clock according to your personal specifications. And yet, and yet...

It might just be me, but there are days when it feels like the Twitter 'party' has turned very sour.

Of course, when I refer to Twitter I don't mean the social media platform itself, but its users and the mood they can collectively create.

Too often, that mood is characterised by noise, extreme nastiness and nonsense. I'm left wondering what impact this is having on public life, on our need to have important and rational conversations on political priorities.

Some will reject such concerns, pointing out that Twitter is very much a minority interest, a place where the chattering classes chatter at each other.

It's not nearly as important in the real world as its users think, so the argument goes.

Maybe so. But in the political world, it's become a central focus. Elected representatives, activists, journalists and columnists all pile in all the time - having their say, fighting their corners.

If there's a debate or a disagreement, Twitter will be a major battleground, with noise and venom the most popular weapons of choice. That's bound to be influencing the content and tone of political discourse.

Of course, there's always been a place for feisty and noisy debate in politics. (You might expect me, a former Nolan Show editor, to say that). Look, for example, at the grand tradition of Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons.

Politics has never been for the faint-hearted. Well-aimed barbs and putdowns were part of it long before TV and radio, never mind the internet.

But with Twitter, the game has changed. It seems the default setting is to have the decibel level turned up to maximum level.

A platform where posts are each limited to 140 characters was probably never going to encourage nuance or calm reflection.

But it's worse than that; it's not just the noise.

It's standard behaviour for many people to say things on Twitter they would never say face to face.

It was recently announced that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is conducting an investigation into vile abuse dished out online during the general election campaign. Many activists responded by taking to their keyboards to point the finger at rival parties.

I think you may be missing the point, lads.

It's trite to dismiss online trolling as all down to a few saddos posting in their underwear from their mothers' basements.

But no one should have to put up with a daily deluge of obscene abuse and threats of violence.

Let's remember that the children and other family members of those targeted can also see the online abuse and can find it very hard to ignore. The Committee on Standards inquiry may well lead to a crackdown on such behaviour by social media companies and the police.

However, it could be the case that the trolls are just the extreme end of a wider problem. A disturbingly significant proportion of political content on Twitter is said with a snarl or a shout. The rule of playing the ball, not the player, is long gone.

Keyboard warriors gleefully descend - not on the arguments of their opponents, but on caricatures of them. Personal invective is standard.

Too often in Twitter land, the slabber is king. No editor, no filter, no limits. And certainly no objective truth.

It's been said that "a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes".

That quote dates back long before the internet age. Nowadays, a lie can reach the moon and back, circle the Milky Way five times, stop off for chips on the way home - and still have change for the bus home.

Fake news, false claims, alternative facts, made-up statistics and quotes - the lack of truth is out there.

It's by no means uncommon to see a bogus or inaccurate allegation gain serious traction on Twitter, thanks to the power of the retweet. Subsequent attempts to explain and clarify the actual facts are doomed.

The Twitter armies like to reinforce their world views, share the love with the like-minded. They also want to believe the worst about the other side, reinforce the caricatures.

So retweet buttons are furiously clicked, without a thought for fact-checking or fairness. Who can tell what's fact anymore?

Take even that famous quote above about the truth putting its shoes on.

Some websites will tell you it was coined by Mark Twain. Others that it wasn't him at all. You can find online graphics giving Twain the credit.

But did he say it? Who knows? Who really cares? Alternative facts are all the rage these days, including in politics.

So what's to stop people choosing the "truth" that best suits their agenda?

Where does all this leave the chances of productive debate about the messy business of Government?

In the real world, Government - like life - is often about muddling through as best you can. It can require tough and complicated decisions, trying to allocate stretched resources between important and pressing demands, sometimes breaking bad news about limited funding for worthwhile causes.

But how much room will be left for complications and shades of grey, if politics is increasingly dominated by the angry world of Twitter?

Perhaps you're still unconvinced. Maybe you still think Twitter's a minority interest, a relatively unimportant land of make believe far from everyday political reality.

Well, answer me this. Name the loud-mouthed former reality TV star with the world's most talked about Twitter account.

I'll give you a clue. His first name's Donald.

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