Why reliance on social media is bad for our politics - Alastair Stewart

Politicians should not rely on boiling down complicated polices to 280-character soundbites, says Alastair StewartPoliticians should not rely on boiling down complicated polices to 280-character soundbites, says Alastair Stewart
Politicians should not rely on boiling down complicated polices to 280-character soundbites, says Alastair Stewart
There's a curious triangulation going on at the moment: Scottish nationalists condemning the folly of Brexit and Brexiteers discrediting Scotland’s right to choose its future. Somewhere in the middle is the rest of us scratching our heads.

And both are perpetuated by a never-ending barrage of hostility on social media. The only cross-cutting agreement is the status quo cannot go on. There are significant policy issues to deal with that are far too often reduced to snide tweets from our leaders.

Covid-19 has merely solidified a problem emerging for years. Most political discussions now take place on social media. That includes academics, politicians and journalists and everyone else in between. The power to connect and reach people is immense, but only if it is supported by longer form considerations and articles.

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But now, as Donald Trump has ably demonstrated, the validity of the mainstream media and academic sources is under siege. When that happens, whatever the potential social media represents, it just quickly become a weapon with disastrous real-world consequences.

So should our politicians veer away from social media and return to long-form blogging, videos – anything to get away from the short, sharp, snappy politics?

Digital politics is rife with a dangerous cognitive dissonance. Whatever the facts, some refuse to accept them. Everything from the sleaziest of scandals to the most transparent of cock-ups has an excuse. Every policy ambition is perfect, and everything has a supporter or an intransigent detractor.

And none of this would matter if not for several factors. For years the consumption of news has come from mostly online sources. The pandemic also means nearly all our interactions are web-based. Politics as an activity was edging towards being mainly discussed online long before 2020. The added issue is the prevalence of outright lies and disputing official sources.

Digital politics seems to promulgate a hostility that does not really exist in the real world. There are coalition-led local authorities across Scotland. Practical politics still gets done. Parliamentary business is much the same. The weak links are the soundbite punches of First Ministers' Questions and social media grandstanding.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke provided a seminal warning against the majority’s tyranny and extreme liberalism. There must be some kind of social order in which we know what truth is.

Social media has become one giant Potemkin village. It simply does not have the space to discuss complex issues in a structured way. Winston Churchill has now become a holy totem or a man as evil as his greatest nemesis. Some of the myths are just outright lies but are taken as fact because thousands share them, comment on them, and hail them as genuine.

It would be condescending to suggest people cannot tell fact from fiction. But the wisdom of crowds is a prevailing problem if thousands decide what is accurate, and thousands more denounce traditional sources of fact, coupled with bear pit politics where everything is open to interpretation.

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Before Covid-19, you might have counted how many times you heard Scottish politics discussed in pubs, restaurants and cafes. Ofcom now records that UK adults are spending at least a quarter of their day online (the highest on record). Our digital avatars are our real lives, and these issues are critical.

There's also a perverse Chinese finger trap at play – seemingly, the more you denounce something online, the more it must be true. A clampdown on political tweets is not the suggestion here. However, our leaders should make a campaign promise – more long-form commentary and less reliance on reducing complicated issues to 280 characters.

If the SNP take a majority at Holyrood in 2021, they would have a moral mandate to request a second independence referendum. Boris Johnson should take the gamble now and caveat his agreement upon a federalised UK featuring on the ballot paper. That statement alone is bound is ignite a few opinions.

These are hugely significant issues and questions, and they deserve much more space than social media posts can give them. It can only be good for politics across Scotland if setting your political stall comes with comprehensive analysis.

Democracy survived and thrived for centuries without the need for the daily screaming matches on Twitter. The Scottish Parliament's hemicycle shape was meant to foster cooperation.

Covid-19, the Alex Salmond Inquiry, Brexit and now calls for a second indyref referendum are a Gordian Knot of complicated and contested issues. All of them need lengthy analysis and a culture change in how we, the public, ‘decide’ what’s true. What's certain is more space to consider the issues is paramount.

It is only a matter of time before ‘Brexit failed because you didn't seize it’ rings out. Social media turns on its own followers eventually and makes them question their convictions too. Before long, it's not that you were wrong, but that you weren't right enough and should have done more to show others how wrong they were. That too is a dangerous route to take.

Covid-19 has presented innumerable challenges and hardships. As we edge clear of it, there's also the opportunity to consider how we want to rebuild the world. Our digital reliance is unlikely to change, but how we use it to conduct our politics and consume information should.

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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