There seems to have been a lot of negativity about social media in the last few weeks and months. It has a number of different facets and works in a number of different directions.
Command central for terrorists
One is the portrayal of the social media as evil and dangerous, full of paedophiles, terrorists and worse. We should be afraid of social media. The new head of GCHQ has called Google and Facebook ‘Command Central’ for terrorists such as the so-called Islamic State, something echoed in detail by the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee’s apparent conclusion that Facebook were the only ones who could have (and didn’t) stop the murder of Lee Rigby. According to this mantra, we need to take control of the social media if the social media companies don’t take control themselves, and accept their ‘social responsibility’
The playground of irrelevant keyboard warriors
The second is the seemingly contradictory portrayal of the social media as pointless, puerile and distracting, reflective of nothing of substance and a great deal of stupidity and foolishness. Social media is something to be loathed. The reaction to the #CameronMustGo hashtag is perhaps the best example – and in particular complaints about the idea that this fact that the hashtag has now trended for upwards of a week (which for people unfamiliar with Twitter trends is something quite remarkable – in Twitter terms) deserves coverage in the mainstream media – and has received it. ‘Why,’ the argument goes, ‘should the real media pay any attention at all to the online witterings of a few dodgy lefty keyboard warriors? That’s not real news.’
So which is it? Is the social media a den of evil, command central for terrorists and something we should all be desperately afraid of – and need to police, to control, to censor? Or is it just the playground of geeks and nerds, lefty political wonks and the liberal media elite, to which we should pay no attention at all? Both? Neither?
A little more complicated….
Reality, as usual, is a little more complicated than that. Social media is in some ways new, in some ways old, in some ways crucially important, in others entirely irrelevant. It needs thought in order to understand, not just a few clichéd words and a bit of pigeon-holing. It’s reflective of ‘real’ life in some ways – and a place and space of its own in others. That, for many of those of us who spend a lot of time using social media, is actually what makes it worthwhile. There are things on here that matter – and there are things that don’t at all. There are ways in which the social media can challenge the ‘mainstream media’, and do jobs that the mainstream media either can’t or won’t do – the coverage of the Israeli incursions into Gaza earlier this year was one of those, opening eyes and then leading at least some of the mainstream media into a very different form of coverage of Palestine and the Palestinians than they had ever shown before. The same for the coverage of the reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson – social media’s immediacy, the way that ordinary people could get their own experiences ‘out there’, provided something different, and seemed, at least in some ways, to change the way that the mainstream media (or at least some of it) covered the events. That matters.
At the same time, a lot of the other stuff on social media really is pretty pointless. Stories abound that have no basis in reality – or, worse, distort reality and distract from real coverage of real events. Some of the photos of the full and empty chambers of the Houses of Parliament currently circulating on Twitter fit into this category, as Isabel Hardman has revealed in the Spectator. At times, though, even these pictures do matter – or at least I think so – such as the ones I tweeted myself of the empty chamber during the DRIP debate. They mattered then because the chamber really was empty, and that was the only time that Parliament had to discuss that critical debate – there was no other chance to debate it, no committee stages, no public (or even private) hearings, just that debate. That was it.
At other times, Twitter is just stupid and irrelevant – or silly and fun, depending on your perspective. I use Twitter for important, work-related stuff, for political debate – but also for silly hashtag games. My tweet ‘The Hunt For Red Leicester’ in the #CheeseFilms hashtag games remains one of my favourites.
Where, then, does #CameronMustGo fit in to this – and why do some people seem to absolutely loath it? Some have positively seethed when they tweet about how pointless and irrelevant it is, how ridiculous it is that other people are angry that the BBC isn’t giving it more coverage, how much of a distraction it is from ‘real’ news, how it doesn’t have any ‘real’ basis behind it and so on. Are they right?
For me, there’s a lot of truth in what the critics say in detail – but they miss the ‘bigger’ social media picture. Yes, there’s no ‘real’ basis for it – it wasn’t a particular event that triggered the tweets, just an idea to try to get it trending. It’s not one particular action of our Prime Minister that made people think it was time for him to go. It’s also not true that #CameronMustGo has any chance whatsoever of actually succeeding in making Cameron go anywhere – let alone forcing him out of office.
…but very, very few of those contributing to the hashtag would ever believe that it does. The ones that I know, at least, have very few illusions about what a hashtag can actually contribute, or what the point of it is. #CameronMustGo is something that allows people to vent their frustration at a government that they detest – and at a media that seems to ignore them. It was born out of anger with the mainstream media’s apparent obsession with Ed Miliband’s oddness and awkwardness – and their unwillingness to subject Cameron to similar levels of scrutiny. It was an opportunity to have fun too – and the hashtag is full of humorous as well as serious tweets.
That doesn’t mean that the hashtag needs or deserves attention by the mainstream media in terms other than its own: as a hashtag. As a hashtag, however, it does deserve attention. That is, if you’re studying or covering what’s happening on Twitter, it deserves attention – because Twitter trends rarely last long, and for #CameronMustGo to trend this long. The level of dissent, of attention, of focus necessary to keep this trending is impressive – in Twitter terms.
That’s not to be sneezed at – but neither is it earthshattering. It’s a bit of a Twitter phenomenon – but I doubt Cameron will be losing much sleep over it either. The main way that Twitter matters to politicians is that their own injudicious (or at least arguably injudicious) tweets can be deeply damaging to their careers, as Emily Thornberry found out. Twitter matters most to those on Twitter. It’s not really something to be either feared or loathed – particularly by those who don’t really understand it.
It is, however, those who don’t really understand social media who seem to display the most of that fear and loathing. They might do better to listen a little more to those who spend more time on the social media…..
UPDATE: 2 December 2014
As I write, two days after the initial post, #CameronMustGo is still trending – and the loathing of it seems to have reached new heights. One Tory MP has suggested witheringly that those behind it don’t understand economics, others that it’s no substitute for ‘real’ politics – while journalists continue to treat it largely with disdain. I can see why both politicians and journalists don’t like it – but at times there seems to be something close to fear in their reactions. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown to some degree – and the problem seems to be that this really is unknown territory.
Journalists have embraced Twitter to a great degree – but there is still a tendency to look down on it because it’s not ‘real’ journalism. That’s true. It isn’t ‘real’ journalism – but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow a ‘lesser’ thing. It’s just different. It performs different functions – mobilisation of groups who are otherwise unheard is just one of them. Anyone who followed the ‘IamSpartacus’ movement should see that – and journalists should be able to look beyond their own bubbles and see that too.
Most politicians haven’t embraced Twitter to the same extent – except to #TweetLikeAnMP – and they generally treat Twitter with either fear (as it may end their careers, Emily Thornberry-style) or as a PR tool (as they treat a great many things). That, too, is missing the point. Twitter is something quite different…
…and those behind the #CameronMustGo hashtag have realised that. They’re in unknown territory too, as no-one imagined the hashtag would trend this long. As I noted above, this still isn’t earth shattering, and it definitely won’t unseat Cameron – but neither is it intended to. It does what it does, and on its own terms – and it does it spectacularly well, in comparison to other similar attempts.