IT’S not just that social media has changed how we consume and use information, it’s the scale and speed with which it has happened. Time was, not long ago, you read a daily newspaper, watched the six o’clock news, listened to the wireless and counted yourself well informed. The BBC was trusted.
First published in The National, 24 February 2017
The only thing I ever did religiously on a Sunday was to pop out and get five or six of the Sunday papers and consume them with a big pot of coffee. Now I manage one or two but the ritual is gone and I miss it. Now there are so many sources (giving, literally, alternative facts) in virtually real time, a minute-by-minute assault on the senses that it is no wonder people can struggle to sort the wheat from the chaff.
And there is plenty of chaff to go round. It is not for nothing that many senior journalists are deserting the profession for PR – PR being to sell a message by formulating and prepackaging a story to hand to an increasingly needy hollowed-out media. I remember being told a story of a correspondent in Cuba during the missile crisis who did not file any copy on a particular day because there was “no news”. Imagine any journo today telling the news desk nothing’s happening? Journalists are under a relentless pressure to churn out content, and there’s way fewer of them. I feel for them, it is a tough gig, and I’ve a lot of respect for anyone trying to bring facts to light for the benefit of informing the public. We need a tough, well resourced independent press with the time to get into stories. We need authoritative copy and informing journalists to see our way through the confusing times we live in.
The alternative will be that social media, where we all share the content so generated, will become a shrill, shallow echo chamber. With no red meat to digest, it’ll just produce bile. Like most politicians, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and use both myself more or less to try to keep them personal, so I sometimes miss things but it is me rather than the team.
And since the independence referendum we have seen people take to social media and challenge the facts they were being fed. It has been great to see. The levelling of the playing field has empowered everyone. But, there are a few caveats. It is easy to forget that not everyone is on social media, especially older generations. Those on social media are already a self-selecting sample, and of those you follow, you’ll tend to only follow those you find interesting or agree with. A lesson from the independence referendum too was that “it was on the news” or “I read it in the paper” still, for some, has a high degree of trust so we cannot ignore the traditional press. Social media is important, but remember it still relies on traditional media.
Then there’s how some people behave online. Everyone in the Yes movement is an ambassador for the cause, online or off, and we need to act like it. But that said, I reject totally the smear – for that is what it is – that any one side has a particular problem with online activists. Actually, it is more significant than that. I think there is a small minority online who are actively trying to poison the well for everyone.
There is an agenda amongst some to claim that Scotland is a bitterly divided, aggressive place riven with discord. Even last week, the BBC Question Time introduction said so. I forget how many times some journo has been “hounded off twitter” only, sadly, to rejoin some days later to claim martyr status afresh. It is a deliberately false impression, designed to scare, cheapen and denigrate. But let’s be honest, it is not entirely without foundation.
I myself get regular abuse online, usually from anonymous accounts clearly set up for the purpose of being unpleasant, or red-faced pudgy men (seriously, almost never women) with barely 30 spambot followers. Over time I’ve developed a few rules. Let me share them with you.
The mute button is your best friend. I mute about four accounts a day for abuse or stupidity. Blocking gives a false sense of achievement to them, just mute, ignore forever and get on with your life.
Don’t feed the trolls. Some people are not actually trying to debate or inform, they’re just looking for a rammy. As soon as you give them one, they’ve won, by wasting your time and you are also running the risk of letting them claim victim status.
Be nice. You’re there to persuade, not vent your spleen. There are a lot of decent people out there, assume everyone is – we’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. And if you are there to vent your spleen, do you think you’re helping?
Check your source. Fake news only spreads because people spread it. If something doesn’t look right, maybe it isn’t. We need to be a bit more sceptical, Russia Today, Sputnik, Brietbart and the rest are not credible, don’t give them oxygen.
Social media is a massive resource, it can inform, educate and even entertain. But there is an agenda to cheapen and denigrate it. We can all play a part in making the online world a nicer place.