From climate change to Taliban's murderous repression of women, virtue signalling on Twitter can hide lack of real action – Susan Dalgety

Politics has always had a touch of performance about it.

Nicola Sturgeon meets climate activists Vanessa Nakate, right, and Greta Thunberg, left, during the COP26 climate summit (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon meets climate activists Vanessa Nakate, right, and Greta Thunberg, left, during the COP26 climate summit (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/Getty Images)

More than 2,000 ago, Cicero, the great Roman orator, wrote that the three aims of political speech-making were: docere, delectare, et movere. Prove your argument, please your audience, and move them emotionally.

Winston Churchill was a master at the art. His emotive radio speeches inspired the British people during the darkest moments of the Second World. He “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle,” declared President John F Kennedy in 1963, himself no stranger to the power of carefully crafted imagery in politics.

This last fortnight, we have witnessed our First Minister use social media to sell Scotland – some would say promote herself – on the world stage. At the time of writing, she has posted or retweeted 84 images of herself at COP26 – that’s more than seven a day, far more than my teenage grandson has ever managed.

There was Nicola with David Attenborough. Nicola with Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nicola with Joe Biden, and of course Nicola with Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, which prompted Friends of the Earth Scotland to criticise her approach.

“Nicola Sturgeon… is keen to be photographed with Greta Thunberg, but at some point her fine rhetoric has to translate into a commitment to stopping oil and gas production…” said their director Richard Dixon.

My own particular favourite from Nicola’s COP26 folder was of her with another doyen of social media, US congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or @AOC to her 12.7 million Twitter followers.

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Resplendent in a red trouser suit and killer heels – the perfect costume for an impromptu selfie – the First Minister was snapped handing AOC a soft drink. “Amidst all of the serious business at #COP26 today, I’m pleased to also report that @AOC now has a supply of Irn-Bru,” she tweeted.

“I don’t pose with anybody,” the First Minister said later in response to criticism of her COP26 media strategy, but the 84 pieces of evidence make her denial ring hollow. That said, I have some sympathy with Sturgeon.

Cicero made one of his most famous speeches on the Palatine Hill in the centre of Rome. Churchill used the radio to get his message across. Sturgeon is simply using today’s medium – social media – as her platform. She is a 21st-century politician using 21st-century mass communication techniques, and she does it quite effectively.

Therein lies the problem, because dig below the surface of Sturgeon’s Twitter feed and there is very little substance. She tweets a good game, but virtue-signalling soundbites are not the same as delivery.

Friends of the Earth criticised the First Minster, not because she got her picture taken with a climate change activist, but because Scotland – an oil-rich nation – does not have a representative at the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, launched by Denmark and Costa Rica to halt new drilling.

And on Thursday, Sturgeon could not even tear herself away long enough from her COP26 photo shoot to attend the weekly First Minister’s Questions, sending her long-suffering deputy John Swinney instead. He had to field questions about why a 55-year-old-man, Richard Brown, died alone on his tenement stair after waiting five hours for an ambulance.

Scotland’s NHS is in crisis. The pandemic is not over. Our economy teeters on the brink of high inflation, yet the First Minister’s response is to tweet another hashtag.

But we are all guilty of confusing a like on Twitter with political progress. Don’t get me wrong, social media can be a very effective campaign tool. In recent years, I have met some amazing feminists online, but it cannot replace action in real life.

When the Taliban stormed to power in Afghanistan in August, world leaders warned them not to persecute women and girls. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “… we call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee the protection of women and girls and their rights. We will monitor closely how any future government ensures their rights and freedoms.”

Global campaigner Malala Yousafzai, herself a survivor of Taliban violence, wrote, “… I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates. Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.”

Yet within weeks, the world’s attention had turned away to the next social media sensation, just as the Taliban began to tighten their grip. Girls over 12 were forbidden from getting an education. A few days ago, the bullet-ridden body of women’s activist Frozan Safi was found in northern Afghanistan, and another three women were murdered in similar circumstances.

In an emotional radio interview earlier this week, veteran BBC journalist John Simpson warned of an impending food crisis in the country.

David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme told Simpson: “We're now looking at the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. Ninety-five per cent of the people don't have enough food… 23 million people marching towards starvation.” And parents are now selling their young daughters for ‘marriage’ in return for money for food, as CNN reported last week. But Afghanistan is no longer trending.

Our world has never been more connected. Our politicians can, and some do, speak to us several times a day via social media. We can campaign on any topic that moves us from the comfort of our sitting rooms. But the danger is that it is all a performance, from Sturgeon’s selfies to our own ‘likes’ of heart-breaking headlines. We are tweeting while the world is burning.

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