Politics or playground: the role of social media

Many view President Trump’s Twitter feed as amusing, but, in light of his most recent fumbling about crime rates in England and Wales, he proved that his provocative persona can be dangerous when reduced to just 140 characters.

The President of the United States wrote: ‘Just out report: “United Kingdom crime rises 13% annually amid spread of Radical Islamic terror.” Not good, we must keep America safe!’ Unsurprisingly, this controversial and inaccurate statement has invited criticism and condemnation.

Ed Miliband branded Trump a ‘moron’ and Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas accused him of ‘fearmongering’. Similarly, Yvette Cooper said the ‘inflammatory and ignorant’ remark would influence hate crime, which has actually risen by 30% and is now creating a major problem in the UK.

This begs the question: just how beneficial is social media as a platform for political debate?

There are some unquestionable advantages for the public; news and current affairs have become instantly accessible at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse. In addition, it is a more direct form of interaction, cutting out the ‘middle man’ that is the traditional press – particularly effective for a younger generation who are increasingly disillusioned with an industry that is seen to be controlled by a group of intellectual elites.

Indeed, broadsheet newspapers and TV and radio broadcasting are often criticised for being too high brow and out of touch with the real world. Katharine Viner, the editor of the Guardian, pointed out that the current political climate is sceptical of mainstream journalism: ‘when the prevailing mood is anti-elite and anti-authority, trust in big institutions, including the media, begins to crumble’.

This trend is common the world over. Jeremy Corbyn emphasised the importance of social media sites Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as an alternative way to communicate a message, which is neither taken out of context nor twisted to fit a certain narrative. He wrote that it can be an effective way to ‘reach past the censorship … that has constrained political debate for so long’.

However, this can be a precarious path. It inevitably removes scrutiny of individuals in positions of power. President Trump, for example, continues to dismiss any opposition to his administration as ‘fake news’ – a term that has become synonymous with his presidency – and the White House continually rejects anyone who questions his achievements, branding them ‘liars’.

The most prominent example was after the President’s swearing into the Oval Office, when the then-press secretary Sean Spicer argued that news reports had misrepresented photographs to ‘minimise the enormous support’ and ‘lessen the enthusiasm for the inauguration’. It followed a New York Times report that estimated the turn out for the significant day was just one-third that of Barack Obama’s which drew a record crowd of 1.8 million.

Conversely, strong advocates of social media as a platform for political engagement, suggest that it has increased and intensified analysis because everyone online can contribute to the debate, meaning politicians are no longer able to shy away from attention.

The American political strategist Wesley Donehue, makes the point that when there are any reports of scandal, the immediate uproar requires political leaders to be more responsive than ever. In short, it guarantees accountability: ‘The Web and social media have created a level of transparency that never before existed’.

However, without question social media sites can become a breeding ground for disagreement, creating a hostile environment which only serves to heighten and stir up conflict and tension, further polarizing the online community. Hillary Clinton summed up this nasty side when she appeared recently on The Graham Norton Show and spoke of Trump’s ‘attacks and insults’, claiming ‘he does things that are not only upsetting, but truly inexplicable’.

The former Presidential candidate articulated that the riskiest tactic of Trump’s is conducting diplomacy on social media: ‘he is trading insults with Kim Jong-un which is just cat nip for Kim Jong-un, he loves that – the idea that he is in a Twitter insult-fest with the President of the United States’, highlighting the lack of thought that goes into political discussion online.

Tulip Siddiq, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn remarked that President Trump – ‘who seems to have a special talent of giving his lazy opinion on situations which he knows nothing about’ – should simply ‘delete his account and step away from social media for good’.

The level and standard of political dialogue will arguably decline if this over-reliance on social media continues. Ed Balls, the former Shadow Chancellor stated that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as a forum for debate will never be able to explain politics at its root: ‘it is a magnifier of events but it doesn’t change the fundamentals’.

The danger, then, is that rhetoric is reduced to a snappy punchline, with the main objective being an attempt to receive the most ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’. It is not hard to see why critics are concerned that this is moving politics into new territory – making it both unthinking and fickle.

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