How social media is damaging society – Alastair Stewart

Complicated issues are reduced to love/hate and agree/disagree on social media platforms like Twitter when there is so much more that needs to be said, writes Alastair Stewart.

The 280-character limit on Twitter is not conducive for discussions of serious issues (Picture: Greg Macvean)

Covid-19 has generated some difficulti questions about social media. In ‘normal’ circumstances we’d use it as and when we felt like it. For many now working at home, it’s nearly always there, chirping in the background.

Long before Covid, social media, particularly Twitter, became the de facto battleground for party and policy. Politicians generally moved away from tweeting generic updates to challenging other parties, policies and even members of their own party.

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But in what feels like a very boxed in world right now, is a 280-character tweet the best format to address complicated issues like a pandemic, Brexit and Scottish independence?

Twitter is a contradiction. It has always been better for emotional proclamations, but not when emotions are running high across the country. It’s perfect for rapid exchanges but, in a bid to avoid rants, people make their tweets punchy to the point of curtness.

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So should politicians, indeed should we all, cut back on using Twitter? Should we redefine the limits of the medium, keep it to updates only and acknowledge that the likes of Facebook are better for more in-depth discussions?

Whatever one’s opinions on Scottish independence or the government’s response to Covid-19, more questions have been raised than ever before about, well, everything. We need a space to discuss these issues. For many, policy and politics were benign background noise. Now they’re a question of life and death.

Limited tweet space and collective noise do nothing but fuel the panic, particularly if an opinion is conflated with the truth. The wisdom of crowds has serious limits. Twitter is saturated with comments in such quick succession, often in the thousands, which invalidate the notion that every question could even theoretically get a response.

People who comment either love or hate, agree or disagree – there are few shades in-between – to say nothing of many accounts being anonymous. This is true of dial-ins as much as other social platforms, but Twitter’s become the king of the jungle. It’s also a barometer of opinion which is seldom accurate, as evidenced by ‘trending’ topics.

Just 280 characters becomes an absurdity when one considers the sea of policy reports, press releases and academic studies that underlie a major political decision. Twitter is perfect for gossip, speculation and frivolity like who’s going to be the next Bond – not amateur dissections of statements on health or the economy. It breeds panic.

If the Twittersphere was confined to mere updates and live broadcasts like the daily coronavirus briefing, then there would be little issue. But there is a massive issue with personal attacks as well. Twitter is a bear pit for politics now, possessed of the same sarcasm and rudeness that (seldomly) appear at a parliamentary level or even in the press opinion sections. This factor alone seems particularly relevant when, at the six-month mark, everyone is feeling the burden of constant bad news day after day.

Twitter is used to vent spleen. It also puts a target on other people’s back. A conscious effort to minimise speculation, inflammatory responses and unhelpful alt-truth ‘facts’ would go a long way to help.

Twitter can be fantastic at igniting an issue or a petition or a cause, but less persuasive in getting to the bottom of it. When MSP Ross Greer tweeted that Churchill was a “warmonger” – interspersed with handclapping emojis – there was a backlash and significant praise for his point.

As a cultural hot potato, there was a seismic amount that needed to be said, which couldn’t be said because there was no structure or space to do so. If the press hadn’t followed up on it, Churchill’s legacy would have been falsely condemned and unduly praised in equal measure. The truth needs space to breathe.

Of course, social media and Twitter have a role to play; it’s a question of shifting our cultural dialogue to a more mature medium to tackle significant issues which affect all of us.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart

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