Political debate is being destroyed by polarisation, and retweets aren’t making things any better, writes Sam Bright
After a summer of public repentance from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, involving chastising appearances in front of United States Congress, last week the charm faded from his charm offensive. Facebook took the decision to appeal the measly £500,000 fine handed out by the Information Commissioner’s Office, for the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
This scandal had focused attention on Facebook’s flaws; on how the ubiquitous social media platform is warping democracy and public debate. Most people are now aware that fake news farms have spread disingenuous information during Western elections, predominantly on Facebook. And the Cambridge Analytica debate gave an opportunity for the media to blast Zuckerberg for his impact on journalism. In recent years, Facebook and Google have effectively monopolised online advertising revenue (controlling 58 per cent of the market), leaving publishers to feed off ever-diminishing scraps.
These are fair criticisms, and they have triggered a long-overdue public debate about the way Facebook has changed society and politics. However, as journalists have rushed to join the collective kicking of Facebook, other social media platforms are avoiding scrutiny. Twitter, for example, is seen as the unruly cousin of social media, and there is a widespread but vague belief that the platform is eroding political civility. While this is true, Twitter is perverting political debate in ways more systemic and corrosive than many appreciate.
It is important to recognise that Twitter fundamentally shapes how the news is analysed. It is the hive mind of Westminster – a virtual ecosystem that plays host to an elaborate ego battle between its members. But, as Jamie Bartlett points out in his recent book, The People vs Tech (which I reviewed for Progress here), the quality of debate on Twitter is sub-optimal, to say the least.
For one, Twitter encourages polarisation. If we use the platform to talk about current affairs, our followers are usually people who share our basic political instincts. As we search for the approval of other users, the platform teaches us not to post things that our followers might disagree with. So, fishing for likes, most of us avoid saying things that deviate from the ideological norms of our filter bubble. Therefore, everyone is pushed into separate camps; political overlap is difficult to find. People who express complex or atypical views (including those who have to maintain a semblance of impartiality) are pushed to the margins – maligned as being centrist stooges – while people who argue in the most unequivocal, absolutist terms stack up retweets.
A symptom of this polarisation is a febrile political atmosphere. This was epitomised last weekend when Andrew Marr snapped at Shami Chakrabarti, after the latter said, “I don’t know about you, Andrew, but I’m a democrat”. Some people, including Faiza Shaheen, have suggested that Marr was having a tantrum because he had been outwitted by a woman of colour. This argument, which accuses one of Britain’s most affable political journalists of being a latent racist, is extreme and potentially libellous. Instead, it is far more plausible that Marr was making a point to Twitter whingers, from both sides of the political spectrum, who routinely drag the BBC for being editorially impartial.
Some journalists have fought against the notion that impartiality, or ideological pragmatism, should be reviled. But they are far outweighed by others who have embraced polarisation for their own benefit. Indeed, the Guardian chose to publish Shaheen’s attack on Marr, while many individual journalists pander to the opinionated – even if it means behaving more like spin-doctors than journalists.
And while Tory-baiting helps to boost the standing of individual journalists on Twitter, publishers more broadly are compensated for reproducing this same political polarisation. The Guardian’s revenue model increasingly relies on donations from engaged readers. And, as alt-left sites like The Canary have demonstrated, engaged readers tend to be the most politicised, and the most radical. Meanwhile, the Independent has embraced the People’s Vote campaign, presumably with a similar plan in mind. From a business point of view, taking a more defined and radical political stance might make sense. But, from a democratic point of view, a more political press will slowly shut down ideological diversity.
But Twitter’s flaws don’t stop here. Sensationalism is also rewarded, typified by the fact that Donald Trump is the master of the platform – so successful that Twitter is afraid to suspend his profile, even when he flouts their rules. In the social media scrum, where everyone with a smartphone is vying for your attention, the people who stand out are inevitably those with the most controversial – often intentionally offensive (yes I’m looking at you, Piers Morgan) – opinions. This sensationalism is consequently injected into the media cycle by journalists who think that Twitter provides an unmediated portal into Britain’s politics. Every TV/radio producer wants to cover the subject that’s been kicking off on Twitter today, so sensationalists – the people generating the debate – are rewarded through broadcast appearances. Hence political analysis is dominated by those who shout the loudest, rather than those with something intelligent to say.
Of course, Twitter is not universally bad for journalism. It helps emerging journalists to get noticed, and it provides a space for young politicos to find likeminded people and to embrace debate. However, even on its basic promise – to eliminate boundaries between ordinary people and celebrities – Twitter doesn’t quite deliver. Though the platform appears open and meritocratic, it mimics the hierarchy of society. Political Twitter is basically a Westminster old-boys club, crammed full of journalists, politicians and experts. You can hear their conversations for free, and you can even cause someone to look up from their beer, if you shout loud enough. In reality, though, it’s incredibly difficult to gain acceptance into the club if you’re a humble outsider. And, because entry is so coveted, existing members constantly seek the approval of their peers. This leads to journalism that appeals to members of the Westminster club, but has little relevance to the rest of the nation.
So, can we do anything to reverse the impact of Twitter on political debate? Well, ultimately, Twitter executives will have to wake up to the platform’s negative effects and make changes. But, as a start, I think we would all benefit if journalists paid a bit less attention to Twitter, and if we stopped venerating ideological purity just because it gets the most retweets.
Sam Bright is an associate at Progress. He tweets @SamBright_Ltd
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