In last week’s episode of the BBC’s long running Sci-Fi drama Doctor Who, the eponymous hero was battling a new otherworldly foe that inhabited Wi-Fi and which went around stealing people’s souls. Like all good fantasy or science fiction, The Bells of St. John was an allegory of a contemporary social quandary, and the show was making a semi-serious point under all the fun and hokum about Twitter, social media in general and how we turn to such networks to vent our outrage.
Do you find yourself modifying or changing your views due to any majoritarianism exhibited on your social media channels? Well, the villains of this particular episode thrive on controlling their lackies through the Wi-Fi, editing their consciousness and consciences. A throw away sinister joke about the London Riots of 2011 underpins the point: do we get caught up in a mob mentality when reviewing our Social Media feeds?
I know from a personal perspective that people proactively lobby and pronounce on many issues through their Social Media channels, often in pejorative terms of outrage, with the implication that anyone who disagrees with their stance must be morally defective. This comes from both the Left and Right political spheres, whether it be the liberal bemoaning a conservative article in The Daily Mail or the right-winger who is raging against the benefits culture.
This trend is most vociferous on Twitter, which ironically is the most limiting of all the social networks when it comes to expansive self-expression. Tweets are strictly limited to a 140 characters (not words), and it’s hard to imagine any nuanced argument being constructed within that limited space. Given these constraints people often over-simplify their stance and also the exhibitionistic impulse behind so much social media encourages the semi-sensationalist dramatic statement. As a result, Twitter tends to morph its users into tabloid journalists when it comes to the political tweet, and this is not necessarily a healthy development.
“Isn’t that basically Twitter?”
The irony is that most people who tweet in such a confrontational manner are probably well-mannered and calm in their day-to-day physical interactions with others. If the political debate on Twitter was transferred to the inside of the living room, I suspect that the tenor of the conversation would be much more civilised, in depth and, yes, rational.
But social media, such as Twitter, is not a semi-private conversation between a couple of people but a very public debate that has the potential to reach millions. Does social media bring out the inner demagogue in us, rabidly lecturing our many followers from our digital podiums? To use a suitable Doctor Who analogy, does Twitter turn a user into a ‘digital Davros‘?
Social media, at its worst, can turn us into bullies who damn anyone who does not agree with us, proactively encouraging us to form packs of likeminded people so we can lambast in unison those who dare toe another line. Yes, sometimes such a reaction is probably merited when someone else is inciting blind, sweeping hatred of one social group or another, but the levels of outrage I encounter on social media is remarkable and I don’t think necessarily warranted.
Also by expressing such outrage, are we not all playing to the agenda of certain media establishments? Media bastions of the Left (The Guardian) and the Right (The Daily Mail) try to mobilise their readership with shock commentary, the irony being that the readership of such articles in question goes through the roof when brought to the attention of the opposing faction. All this does is assist both publications’ advertising revenue, as people share links on social media of articles that they disapprove of. In some ways, a publication such as The Daily Mail is a bit like Punk Rock in its ethos, in that it only exists to peddle ‘outrage’ and make money from that process.
One such article is a recent Daily Mail cover story linking a horrendous family mass manslaughter to the alleged corrupting values inherent within the UK’s Benefits System. Would I have been aware of that Daily Mail article if none of my liberal or left-wing friends had shared it on social media? Probably not. I refused to click the link on principle as I didn’t think I would be correctly informed by reading the article, but the only winner here is the Daily Mail. The mass circulation of such articles by people politically opposed to them only enhances the hit rates of the Daily Mail site, helps with its SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and gives the Mail an excuse to increase its online banner advertising rates. It’s an admittedly slick, if distasteful, operation.
And it’s not just Right-wing publications such as the Mail that operate on this principle. The Guardian too seeks to invoke outrage of all sorts of hue, often on similarly flimsy pretexts, as Dan Hodges recently illustrated in an article in The Daily Telegraph.
So does our collective social media outrage only fuel the business models of media outlets that we disapprove of? You don’t need Google Glass to see that this indeed might be the case. And does venting our anger on Twitter change anything for the better (or worse) in the real world? Well, I don’t think I need to tell you the answer to that. And do social media networks (excluding blogs) sufficiently inform your opinions and thinking on matters of great importance? Only you can tell me if you think that is the case but, if you do, I hope you will do so in a manner that’s more expansive than just using 140 characters.
Unlike The Doctor, I cannot set you free from the Wi-Fi and I would not necessarily want to do so (the benefits of a society being online outweigh the deficits). However, I would urge you to think before you retweet an article that you disagree with and ask you to pause before you tweet something you may regret, for you may in fact be serving other people’s agendas and not your own. In fact, you are probably doing those you disagree with a great favour indeed.