The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge one exists. I’m concerned about how politics and current affairs are discussed and debated online - worldwide and across the UK if it comes to it - but I think we need to do a few things differently in Scotland. The technological changes we’re currently going through in terms of how people access and process information about the world around us is unprecedented, similar only to the development of radio and TV mass media but much more powerful even than them.
First published in The Sunday Herald, 9 July 2017
Where TV series like Mad Men have been able to repackage events, there was real angst in the 1950s over the influence of advertising gurus on the popular psyche, and television on politics. I think in 50 years people will look back at the times we’re living in and marvel at how social media, interconnectedness and big data changed the lives of we cyber-neanderthals. Literally all human knowledge is available with a few taps on a device in our pockets, which itself is more complex than the machines that ran the moon landings. It is quite a time to be alive.
But with rapid change comes an unsettled feeling, and sometimes we need to take stock of where we are and where we might be going. Technology is reshaping how we interact with our family, friends and wider world, authority and events at an exponential rate - faster than we can process actually, and faster than law makers worldwide can respond. Laws on copyright, privacy, rights protection, defamation, slander, libel and the fight against terrorism are all barely fit for purpose as each technological development brings a new way round the existing law.
A declaration of interest: I’m a technophile. I don’t want to slowdown change, I’m confident we’ll adapt. The fact that I can FaceTime my nieces in California for breakfast and a moment later my folks in Kuwait for dinner is a life-augmenting wonder. I have video meetings with my team from six locations in three countries and two time-zones and we don’t even remark upon it. The fact people can self-educate and empower themselves, and challenge authority in all its forms, is a huge boost to public life. People are no longer passive consumers of information, we can all be journalists and seekers after truth and new ideas.
So why does it all sometimes feel like cat videos and Kardashians, fake news and faux outrage? Why does it feel faster and broader yet shallower and more shrill? Meaner, rather than more generous as we all share in this progress? When Stephenson’s Rocket was first tested in Northern England, there were concerns expressed by serious medical people that human flesh and bone could not withstand these breakneck speeds and physical dislocation. I think they were onto something. We’re all awash in a torrent of information demanding our attention, much of it inconsequential but we’re not sure how to tell, and fearful of missing something or not being in the know. As Sir Humphrey once said in the pre-online Yes Minister “I need to know everything to decide what I need to know”. I’m not sure he’d have coped well with Twitter and Facebook.
And in the same way as television changed politics, we’ve seen technology and big data change the rules, with real effects in the real world. The Trump, Leave and Macron campaigns used techniques that we are only still starting to get our heads around. Some other campaigns may well have breached existing data protection laws. It is up to the rest of us to keep up with the curve, and up to the citizens to realise what is going on and how our own behaviour matters.
As the barrage of facts and alternative facts on offer has sped up, we yearn, instinctively, for truth and actual facts from authoritative sources. That’s natural and a good thing, but authoritative sources are few and far between, we’re seen behind the curtain, the previous trusted sources like politicians, newspapers or media have been proven to get things wrong, or worse. But when, as Abraham Lincoln said, most of the quotes on the internet are made up, where to turn for facts?
So in default of that, people turn to tribalism. That’s my team, we’re right, you’re wrong. Anything my team says is correct, and anything your team says is a cynical distortion of the truth. I think we’re at a point where some of the edges of Scotland’s online activity has turned into tribalism, or worse, sectarianism. I think there’s also the proven tactic of using abuse to shut down debate or distract from issues (I’m looking at you President Trump) being practised in Scottish cyberspace too. And we need to be on our toes, if the extremists and blowhards polarise discussion and drive regular folks offline, we all lose.
So we need some leadership, and I’d like all of Scotland’s political parties to lead by example, ideally working together on just a few points where we can agree.
Now there’s only so much parties and politicians can do, we can’t regulate the internet. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't try, and we can in fact regulate ourselves and our party members. The SNP already has an existing code of conduct for members, and if anyone breaches it then they can be disciplined or expelled. Where conduct also extends to things done online, I’d like to see all of Scotland’s parties adopt guidance for ourselves and our members on online activity specifically because its a Brave New World out there. Our leader Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly led calls for decency online, let's all work together and make it happen.
Debate, by all means, ridicule, certainly, but how about all of Scotland’s politicians stop trying to divide the world into goodies and baddies and urge our supporters to do likewise? Frank-Walter Steinmeir, the German President, said in his recent address to the European Parliament that “the EU is based on the revolutionary idea that your opponent might just have a point.” How about we all adopt that as a philosophy?