Social media has completely revolutionised the way that people receive their information and news. Political parties are having to think very carefully about the way in which they can galvanise digital communities in order to win votes. The battle of hashtags started the day that Parliament was dissolved when #MilibandMustWin became the first party-biased trending topic. Politicians themselves have to think very carefully about what it is that they post and what is visible on their social media to avoid hot water.
Politicians have inevitably caused offense on social media, some fatally. Emily Thornberry lost her job when she was accused of displaying ‘contempt for the working class’ after tweeting a picture of an England flag combined with a white van. David Ward of the Liberal Democrats has repeatedly faced accusations of anti-semitism following tweets about Israel. Always the centre of something sensational, George Galloway recently entered into a bizarre confrontation, seemingly needlessly with a local brewery which has caused him some embarrassment and hopefully shame. There are of course many other examples.
It could be anticipated that politicians themselves have received quite the abuse on social media sites. The BBC launched into a defence of it’s journalists in the wake of the breaking story that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP had stated a preference for a Conservative government in a memo leaked to the media. The reporter James Cook described some of the tweets he received following the story as ‘vicious abuse’ and the BBC called for more to be done to limit this kind of behaviour.
The term ‘trolling’ has found popular parlance to describe what is perceived as deliberately disrupted interactions designed to cause pain or distress. To a certain extent this is accurate, however it has been commandeered from internet protest groups such as Anonymous. In the documentary ‘We are Legion: the Story of Hacktivists’ (2012) one member describes how the term was used to give a name to the deliberate provocation of activists of the Westboro Baptist Church. Originally the aim of trolling was entirely to disrupt far right groups in a way that utilised a certain amount of humour and embarrassment.
As with many forms of protest and activism there are cultural distinctions that are drawn between what is a worthy and unworthy cause. It is challenging for a society to define what constitutes a valuable political interjection and what can be considered indiscriminate abuse. What Picasso was to art and Beckett was to literature, what we consider now to be deviant and disgusting could be considered valid public discourse in the future.
That is not to say that there is not needless name calling or houndings that are designed to cause pain and upset to politicians and public figures. However that does not invalidate the genuine engagement of a population who are more connected to their leaders on Twitter than they are at the ballot box. Surely we must consider the principles of accountability and transparency in light of the new digital age and celebrate those that wish to question and engage with their leaders. We can worry about the tone once more conventions for the new form have settled down.
If I wasn’t prepared to be offended, I would avoid social media. I would avoid television for that matter, or the mirror at 6am and it’s time to prepare for work. Part of the democratic social contract is that sometimes there will be people that we disagree with, often hugely. As a politician of any political party you have to accommodate the reality that the majority of people did not vote for your policies. As such some of that majority will really rather disagree with you and want to make that clear. I don’t believe that there is any politician that can navigate the Gladiator ring that is the House of Commons but can’t simply differentiate between tweets to respond to and those to ignore. It is a question of whether or not we are willing to shut out legitimate voices in order to guard against the possibility of the system being abused or whether we are willing instead to selectively engage in an obvious attempt to contribute to public discourse. I know which of the two I would prefer.