Whitehaven News column – 1st May 2014

Poisoning the Well

The internet has been with us for probably longer than any of us care to remember and it has undoubtedly brought many benefits. Few people would doubt that there’s a dark side to the web, but one of the most stark ways this manifests itself is through ‘social media’.

If you’re reading this column, you’re undoubtedly a switched-on, cutting-edge contemporary type so I don’t have to explain what Facebook or Twitter is, but on the off-chance you’ve stumbled upon the notion of social media for the first time, let me (try) to explain. Essentially, Twitter and Facebook are platforms for conversations between people. These conversations can be accompanied by photos, video clips, or links to other websites. These conversations can be entirely open or they can be categorised into subjects or ‘threads’ relating to a particular issue.

The notion is brilliant. Twitter undoubtedly does the job of the old ‘news wire’. Where once the big news agencies would charge for news content from all over the world  (a hugely expensive and lucrative enterprise) Twitter now does this for free. Rolling TV news? Forget it, Twitter is quicker. Whatever you want, it’s on there. Sport. News. Comedy. Entertainment in all its forms. But entertainment and enlightenment are two different things.

The printing press transformed our society – not just through the mass printed bible but the growth of newspapers and journals. The sharing of ideas and innovations that could – and did – drive social, technical, scientific, economic and medical progress. Crucially, the printing press drove democracy as well.

The internet is the printing press of our age, and, in time, will probably prove to be just as, if not more transformative. But the nature of this transformation is in question. With regard to factual debate and political argument, social media represents something of a sewer. Lies, half-truths and insinuations seem to be the stock-in-trade of many (by no means all) social media acolytes. I’ve seen cases locally where school pupils have been bullied in the most horrific way and with the most awful consequences (and yes, the Police will prosecute you for doing this). In terms of political debate, social media can be similarly ugly. An old proverb (often misattributed to beginning with Churchill) states that “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” There’s some truth in this, and social media tends to kid some liars into believing they’ve discovered lightspeed.

There’s those who generously offer death threats and there’s a good smattering of tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists (I’m getting a Knighthood apparently). But overall, the disregard for fact, honesty and most of all accountability is utterly poisonous for our politics. For some people,  social media has become the modern day equivalent of badly spelled graffiti on a toilet wall in a rough pub. A very rough pub. For others, an anonymous entry in a suggestion box or the equivqlent of shouting into an empty  darkened room. Most people can sort the truth from the detritus, the literal from the fanciful; but some just want to poison the well.

But don’t let this put you off – there’s literally millions of brilliant people using social media too, and for the time being, they’re in the majority.

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