When Twitter first rose to prominence as part of a new age of online communication, the website instantly grew in popularity by people and celebrities using it to connect to each other and share content. Inevitably, journalists and politicians begin to join in. Today even the Pope is on Twitter, making the inclusion of everything human and benign complete.
However, the rosy picture of a social media paradise has quickly evaporated. What was once a great platform for communication and discussion has now taken an ugly turn. It is at best a place for people to sit behind their opinions and fuel their egos, at worst a noisy echo chamber which is shaping our political divides. The presence of politicians does not help.
Twitter creates echo chambers. In theory, this creates a platform in which you can follow your favorite football team or celebrity to get the content that you desire. But, when it comes to political discussion, many would argue that Twitter is now part of and fueling both the polarisation of politicians and the disrespect and even contempt for them. Politician’s tweeting about legislation or political viewpoints only serves to entrench our already solidified positions. We see our elected representatives reaffirming our own visions without acknowledging the validity of the other side. What also makes things odd is that a substantial proportion of Twitter uses are in fact bots, serving an agenda orchestrated from abroad, who retweet and interact with real users to stir the pot and get everyone all riled up. It is unclear whether to laugh or cry at the idea of a genuine person sat on their sofa arguing with a bot in Russia over the pros and cons of US chlorinated chicken, but we bet it happens more than you think.
Observe a recent tweet from the Labour MP, David Lammy: 'Nothing democratic about interpreting a referendum won through cheating, lies and bluster as a mandate for a No Deal Brexit not even on the ballot paper. If you want to stand up for democracy join us in the lobby to give the public the #FinalSay on any Brexit deal.'
To his followers, these 248 characters are an adequate summary of the whole Brexit fiasco. But rather than engage in cross party pragmatic negotiations, in the hope of finding a solution to the current deadlock, such a shallow and generalized interpretation of the EU referendum two years ago merely alienates passionate Leave voters and thus, makes the finishing line in Britain’s relationship with Europe seem even further away. The same can equally be said for ardent pro-Brexit MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg.
It has to be said that Twitter is full of normal people, like me and you, who have every right to say what we want concerning politics. The same in theory can be said of the presence of journalists on Twitter, who’s freedom underpins democracy. In fact, Twitter has the benefit of allowing journalists to scrutinize the actions of those in power and create discussions. As a platform for public discussion it can be useful in bringing people together to share ideas and opinions. However, debates rarely end in an agreed outcome as each side slides away from the keyboard having ranted to someone in another living room in another city whom they will never meet and likely never say anything to in the real world. The combination of algorithms and internet de-humanisation renders political discussions on Twitter futile. Little is achieved through these arguments other than an overall feeling of anger, apathy or both on all sides.
It seems rather pointless, which is fine as public use of social media generally supports free speech of which we should all be an advocate of. If people want to argue with a ‘Remoaner’ or a ‘Brexiteer’ about a political idea no selection of 140 characters is going to immediately resolve then they are perfectly allowed to do so. However, once politicians join in the debate, it adds another dimension. Instead of a entering a new land of positive political-public discussion, the presence of politicians on Twitter has reduced those elected into high office to the same level as members of the public who hurl abuse at each other from behind a screen, even to the same level as the bots from Siberia.
It not only reduces their social stature, but by placing themselves within the same conversation as the worst Twitter users who send death threats and engage in misogynistic abuse, politicians facilitate the diminishing of respect members of the public have towards them. Politicians such as Anna Soubry often complain of the vile abuse they receive on Twitter. But if we think for a moment, would they receive as much vile abuse if they weren't on Twitter? It is one thing to send a death threat on the internet and then put your phone down to make a cup of tea, another to send an IRA-style message through someone’s letter box.
Twitter has normalized abuse. It is the presence of politicians on the website that I think in part justifies the abuse they receive; they are just another twitter handle to @ and berate. In the long run this damages the relationship between the public and those who govern us. By joining in the Twitter fury, politicians reduce their position as law makers and sink themselves down into the increasingly ugly, noisy and crowded pool of internet conversation. Twitter has created a scenario in which politicians become another angry voice in a sea of noise.
Instead, perhaps those in elected office should remove themselves from Twitter, both for the good of our political discussions and their own piece of mind. The laws of the land are not made on Twitter. For the sake of national discussion and perhaps even national sanity, we are now suggesting politicians keep the debates about Brexit and other political matters to Parliament, town halls or even Question Time where they can address both the concerns of voters and the opinions of their opposites in a direct and more humane manner. It is in these situations where political debates matter more. To politicians, we say stick to your job of governing the country, leave the endlessly hostile and largely pointless Twitter conversation to the rest of us and the bots.