Politics, it’s everywhere at the moment. Can’t get away from it, can we? It’s in the news. It’s on our social media feeds. On placards. On clothing. As bad as it sounds, I’d like to get back to ‘business as usual’ sometime this decade and by that I mean a return to reasonable party politics. A more traditionally ‘British’ method of debate and discourse.
There is a reason for my sudden crisis: social media and the insidious division and constant, low-level, petty insults that it causes.
In the last few months, I have been told to ‘emigrate’ and that ‘we don’t want your kind here’ (Something that has probably never been uttered to white, heterosexual, agnostic man in all of human history) because I voted ‘No’ in the Scottish independence referendum. I have been told that I want to see ‘dead babies’ because I don’t like the idea of the state providing new parents with a ‘baby box’. I have been called a ‘paedophile and rapist’ because I voted for a particular political party.
You would be correct in assuming that absolutely none of these insults were on a face-to-face basis. There were all from the bloody quagmire of social media. A place where everyone is the Fuhrer of their own narcissistic little empire, are correct on every issue and have their opinions further reinforced by other like-minded ‘friends’.
There is a strange disconnect, between how people behave online and real life. We are social animals and have evolved to take body language, speech inflection and other subtle cues as part of the whole plethora of communication and the human experience. Once you remove this, words can seem a bit impersonal and totally lacking of any nuance. Unfortunately, a yellow emoticon blowing a kiss or a pair of hands high-fiving the air can’t really convey the complexity of love, joy, anticipation, or express the full gamut of emotion that is necessary sometimes.
When using social media you’re provided with no time to think about your response to a comment. It’s usually just a knee jerk reaction to someone insulting you. You’ll often just respond from memory, not always the most reliable store of information to rely upon. The comment thread can quickly descend into utter chaos, like a rugby scrum, but with bad grammar and unsubstantiated nonsense, with both sides furiously kicking an opinion back and forth. ‘Utter shite’ isn’t the most likely comment to get a rational response back from you.
The faux outrage can build up and up and up. ‘I can’t believe these people believe this nonsense’ (Sometimes you’re quite correct; how do some people believe what they’re writing) you mutter to yourself. Arguing against multiple people feels like an all-out assault on your mental facilities, leaving you drained. These people have to be demented, no worse than that, they’re actually a danger.
On a face-to-face basis, you can usually tell if the person you are talking to is ‘having a laugh’ and it can usually be viewed in good humour. I once had an acquittance jump away from me in mock horror when I told them how I voted in the Scottish Independence referendum. If he’d put ‘how could you vote No. Idiot!!!????’, on social media my response would have been more hostile.
But deep down, they are just people who happen to have a different opinion to yourself. We’re all quite reasonable when we’re face-to-face with each other. We’d probably stop by the side of the road to offer our jump cables, inform someone that they’ve dropped a glove on the pavement and partake in other small acts of kindness that make the modern world a bit more bearable and civil.
Social media is like a hall of mirrors in a Victorian freak show. It distorts all and makes us look hideous. It’s not always a true reflection. The difference is that rather than laughing at ourselves, this is the electronic, ethereal impression that the rest of the world sees, and it often isn’t pretty.
It has now got to the point that words aren’t even necessary. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a meme is worth ten thousand. The ‘alt-right’ in particular use Pepe the Frog as a totem to rally supporters around. I expect many of the young men that use the meme don’t know anything about the traditional left-right dichotomy, immigration, trade deals or international relations.
What was previously the domain of the conspiracy theorist is now mainstream. Originally, social media was meant to democratise debate and politics. We were all supposed to have the blinkers of the mainstream media removed and to finally see who is controlling the shadows in Plato’s cave. The mainstream media do filter information out, by fact checking and referencing. They employ trained people to do this. I’m not sure if the BBC is an acronym for ‘Bastards Broadcasting Communism’ or is a nest of right-wing vipers anymore. Either way, having some faith in mainstream media is preferable to believing that that Queen Elizabeth II is a bipedal lizard from Zeta Reticuli or that Lady Ga Ga is a Satanist?
In some ways, I’m glad that humanity isn’t broadcasting the content of the internet into the cosmos in a similar manner to radio signals. Advanced extraterrestrial beings would either give as wide berth or atomise us with a giant space cannon or alternatively, make us chattels to their galactic empire.
In these days of ‘fake news’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘hyper-reality’, peeking out of the social media trench is even more critical for ourselves, society and democracy. Remember, the person on the other end of the keyboard is real and probably fairly normal. Perhaps we can even crawl out into no man’s land and have an adult, face-to-face discussion with one another…one day.