The ubiquitous signs of Facebook and Twiteer can be both good and bad for democracy
I had a long discussion this morning with one of my constituents about an article he had seen via a Twitter link about a local issue. I knew that the article he had read was wholly inaccurate. I quoted to him precisely what had happened and precisely what the minutes of the meeting of the council said. In the end we went into his house and went on to the Council’s website and I was able to prove that what I had said was correct. But even though my constituent then did accept the veracity of my story his last comment as I left his house was stil, “But I saw it on Twitter!”
Now don’t get me wrong I am a believer in social media and use it almost on a daily basis. I obviously have a blog and a Twitter account and a website and a Facebook page. I not only use this but am a regular contributor to other Party websites and Facebook pages. I think it marvellous that I can send an e-mail to 900 of my constituents about a local issue and get almost instantaneous feedback from 30 or 40 of them which can guide how I represent their views to the council and other bodies. I welcome the opportunity to have a ‘discussion’ with people sometimes round the corner but sometimes on other parts of the Globe about issues such as climate change which affect us all.
BUT, and there’s always a but, we do need to ask whether or not we can rely on social media as a source of facts rather than made up statements. I have just looked at my Twitter account for example and seen that my colleague, Cllr Andrew Makinson has been engaged in an exchange of Tweets with someone called the Chairman. I don’t know why he bothers because I ignore the man. The Chairman has made up some facts which he continues to shovel at us and his small, but presumably dedicated, band of ‘followers’. Of course what he says is unchallengeable because we don’t know who he is and we don’t know where he is. He can therefore say what he likes and inevitably at some stage some people will begin to believe what he says.
Now If I say anything what I say can be tested and proved or disproved. I am clear about who I am. I do not hide behind an anonymous front. I do not say things that are untrue although some people might not like my interpretation of facts. At the end of the day if I say something malicious or false about someone in any of the branches of social media I could be held to account for what I have said in a court of law.
That is also true of many of the most reliable sources of information. If you follow a link for a Telegraph, Independent, Guardian or Times article for example they too are public bodies. They apply to all their work the same standards of accuracy which are applied to their printed versions. They can be held to account for those articles in court and even in the ludicrously weak self-regulating body that the press have established.
When I look at the most frenetic and ludicrous social media offerings, however, they are almost all anonymous. Cowards who would not face you or me in a public debate hide behind the anonymity that social media can give you.
This is actually a major reason why some people I know have stopped tweeting etc. Personally I couldn’t care less what ‘The Chairman’ or anyone else says about me or mine. People who know me can make their own judgement on my behaviour and what I say. Others are a little more sensitive than I am and have been driven away from using this type of communication because of the barrage of abuse they have sometimes received. I don’t see how this state of affairs can be changed. So many people use social media so quickly that it is almost impossible to police. If my account got stopped with one supplier it would possible in seconds to open another one with another supplier.
So perhaps what we need is more education about social media and its drawbacks as well as its clear potentials. Or perhaps we need people to be a little more honest and considered when they both put things up and when they read them. If I have ever got an anonymous letter I have usually given it scant regard. They were usually inaccurate and where designed to cause trouble. I apply the same logic to social media.
I never tweet or blog after I’ve had a couple of drinks. I never Tweet or blog in anger. Just look at the problems which have been caused to Donald Trump with his 3 am Tweets about women to see whether I am on the right lines! I always try and be as factually correct as possible if only because as a public figure people will sue me if I deliberately mislead them. I always respond to challenges made to me unless they are absolutely over the top or simply abusive when I bin them.
So you might say that what I have said here is blindingly obvious but let me give you one further challenge. Blogging and Tweeting is not the same as doing. It’s not the same as going out and talking and listening. Whilst I do use the social media to test out ideas and options I never assume that the Twitterati are fully reflective of opinion in the community that I represent. The number of people who use Twitter etc on a regular basis for two way communication is relatively small. A furore in the social media might look entirely different from the discussion that you physically have out in the community.
Seeing people face to face allows you to judge the man or woman by their body language and allows much better discussions and a two way flow of information that blogs and sound bites. I proved that to myself with the little incident this morning which opened this blog. Every year My Lib Dem colleagues and I visit every house in Church Ward. If I had the e-mail address of every single one of my constituents I would still try and call and see them physically because that is a much better way of them knowing us and us knowing the feeling of the community that we represent.
So I will continue to use social media but always temper it with the reality of ‘real’ life! I would be interested to hear your opinion of how social media is used by politicians and especially the way I use it. Comment here or why not invite me round to your place for a nice cup of tea?!