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Pols and trolls – advice from a nobody

December 26, 2019

If it should come to pass that some future government introduces a Universal Living Wage, in which everybody gets a salary, regardless of whether they’re working or not, I fear one thing. Twitter will be transformed from a vicious bear-pit into an ocean of foaming sulphuric acid.

Having plenty of time to do stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff you do will be pleasant or life-enhancing. That’s the only way I can explain the 70% of Twitter content that is, at best, trite and banal, and at worst, hysterical and psychotically malign. For politicians who are at the receiving end of the abuse, lies and vituperation, it must be soul-destroying.

I can only assume that many of the people behind the tsunami of ordure thrown at politicians don’t have enough to do. Even if they live busy lives, they have acquired – with the aid and encouragement of the social media – a taste for sadism. Much more fun, I imagine, than lunch breaks chatting with colleagues or evenings watching box sets.

I am fortunate. In Twitter terms I’m a nobody. You could just about fit all my followers in your local pub, if you have one. Though I have plenty of axes to grind, I don’t have elections to fight, profiles to maintain and legions of admirers to satisfy. So nobody bothers to troll me. And if they did, I would be in the happy position of being able to say “so what?”, and to encourage my critics to go stuff themselves.

I write this because I’ve been doing a bit of digging into the Twitter audiences of candidates for the Labour Party leadership. Of all these worthies, the person who seems to have come in for the biggest battering is Jess Phillips (above middle). She’s an MP from a Birmingham constituency I know quite well. She’s one of the more prolific tweeters, which might explain why she attracts so much attention.

Based on the things she says, not only on Twitter but in interviews and on TV, I warm to her. I suppose it helps that we’re both Brummies, even though I deserted that wonderful city 40 years ago. But I get the impression that she’s a kind and caring person who would be good company. Just as importantly, she hasn’t lost the ability to think for herself. Or at least that’s the image she’s successfully projected in my direction.

Why then does she come in for more stick than just about everybody else actually or potentially in the leadership race? She’s accused of being gobby, of taking the Murdoch shilling (by virtue of an interview in the Sunday Times), of being a racist and any number of other unpleasant things. On the gobby bit I can defend her. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, the odious Brexit ultras and a host of other male politicians are allowed to be loud and shouty. But she, being a woman, clearly isn’t.

Her primary political sin, apparently, is that she’s not a dedicated follower of Corbyn and his praetorian guard, also known as Momentum. But that shouldn’t be grounds for people to say that she isn’t sufficiently working class (as if that’s relevant), or that she’s a racist when she patently isn’t. And it certainly doesn’t justify death threats.

How she deals with the abuse is beyond my understanding. Likewise, many other members of parliament, mostly female, who have been driven to extreme steps to maintain their personal safety. Jess Phillips appears to read all her Twitter responses. Perhaps she takes comfort from the view that if nobody bothers to abuse her, she’s politically dead. But years of online poison must surely corrode the soul. Bitterness must breed bitterness, and threats must eventually lead to paranoia. Do we really want the people who scrutinise our government’s policies and pass our laws to be frightened wrecks?

This is surely a serious issue. Boris Johnson has the entire machinery of government through which he can express a point of view. But individual MPs, especially if they’re reluctant to follow the party line to the last detail, can find themselves in a lonely place. Not only are they jumped on by their own parties, but they’re at the mercy of hordes of twitter trolls. Wither free speech? Are we heading into Trump World, in which anyone in the Republican party with independence of thought is bullied, threatened and abused into cowed compliance?

Twitter gives a platform to guerrilla politicians who have few other means to communicate their ideas. It worked for Donald Trump, but he’s not exactly a person whose personal traits everybody would try to emulate, even if he is sent by God to come to the rescue of the American people.

How do you survive the constant attention of people whose hobby, and possibly sole means of expression, is abusing people online, and still retain some sense of balance and stability in your life?

Just as important, how do you maintain an effective democracy if anyone with an iota of independent thought who dares to raise their head above the parapet ends up drowning in hate? It’s hardly an attractive part of the politician’s job description, and probably explains why so many of our representatives are mute nonentities.

Once upon a time, victorious Roman generals, as they rode in triumph through the streets of Rome, would be accompanied in their chariot by a young slave, who would whisper in his ear “remember general, you are mortal”. Perhaps these days there needs to be someone by the side of people like Jess quietly whispering “remember, you are not a bad person” as they’re pelted with virtual rotten eggs.

Better still, politicians, upon whom we depend for all our sakes to stay mentally healthy, should rely more on their staff to wade through the abuse, the death threats and the lies on their behalf. The assistant could then spare their boss the everyday meanness of the trolls and only alert them to stuff that needs action – threats and hate mail to be reported to the police, lies to be rebutted and libels to be pursued. If they don’t trust their regular staff to do that job, then perhaps they should find a friend who has their interests at heart.

Even if the most significant employees have been selected by an atypical process, parliament is a workplace. If I ran a business in which my employees routinely suffered abuse, I would make sure that they received training in how to deal with it, and counselling for those whose mental health is threatened.

I did a quick search on Google to find out what training the House of Commons provides MPs. All I found was a few seminars on how to handle expenses properly, and a Speakers’ handbook describing the correct protocol for the proceedings of the House.

In other words, nothing on handling the social media, on laws relating to libel and hate speech, on personal protection and on resources available to deal with illnesses such as alcoholism and depression.

That’s not to say that guidance doesn’t exist. So I’m writing to my newly-elected local MP, who happens to be a mental health doctor, to get his impressions on the safety of Parliament as a workplace. Assuming he replies, I’ll post an appropriate update.

Meanwhile, I wish all members of parliament a happy and stress-free Christmas break. And for God’s sake, don’t post your holiday pics on the social media, especially if, like Boris Johnson, you’re in Mustique, because someone out there is bound to have the time and inclination to let you know how happy they are for you.

Just give yourselves a rest for the next few days. I suspect you’ll need all your strength for the next twelve months.

From → Media, Politics, Social, UK

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    Abraham Lincoln:
    We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who would pervert the Constitution.

    Thomas Sowell:
    Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and “social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?

    Robin Williams:
    Politicians should wear sponsor jackets like Nascar drivers, then we know who owns them.

    When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the losers.

    In America, they call it “lobbying.”
    Everywhere else in the world, they call it, “Bribery and Corruption.”

    Ayn Rand:
    When you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing- When you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors- When you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you again them, but protect them against you- When you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice- You may know that your society is doomed.

    See a pattern? Think things have changed much?

    • Yes of course. But I don’t believe that our society (by which I mean the UK and the US more than any other) is doomed – yet. What’s changed is that so many more people have gained a voice through the social media. Is this a good thing? Not of they spread hatred. But you could argue that Twitter et al acts as a pressure valve. I’m alarmed by the anti-democratic tendencies of our leaders in both countries, but equally alarmed by the invitation Twitter extends to demagogues. Thanks for your well-chosen quotations! S

  2. You’ve hit on a topic where your experience and expertise could make a useful contribution, Steve. We need politicians because we need leadership. The potentially good leaders are patently either incapable or unable to lead because their true voices can’t be heard above the tumult of the mob, whilst the leaders we have are more like cheerleaders for the rabble.

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out how to make the still, small voice of reason both heard and heeded.

    This message will self-destruct (or be taken down) after sixty seconds.

    Happy New Year !

    • Happy New Year to you too Doug, and thanks for your kind words. I wish I knew how to let still small voices be heard. Still thinking about it! S

  3. Andrew Oliver permalink

    Good article.

  4. I always say Twitter is for twits, and I am sure that you at least know what they are. Why don’t they stop twittering on about nothing and go and hide their heads under their wings, poor things.

    • Lots of enlightening and uplifting stuff on twitter as well, Rachel! S

  5. Yes of course. But I don’t believe that our society (by which I mean the UK and the US more than any other) is doomed – yet. What’s changed is that so many more people have gained a voice through the social media. Is this a good thing? Not of they spread hatred. But you could argue that Twitter et al acts as a pressure valve. I’m alarmed by the anti-democratic tendencies of our leaders in both countries, but equally alarmed by the invitation Twitter extends to demagogues. Thanks for your well-chosen quotations! S

  6. I left Twitter several years ago because it really is a rubbish communication medium. I find that the short character limit imposed really restricts the sorts of conversations you can have — it’s fine for posting jokes or talking about trivia, but for anything more complex the character limit encourages people to resort to doing no better than shouting slogans at each other.

    I agree with you about Jess Phillips. She does come across as one of the more straightforward members of the Labour Party. In fact she’s one of the more straightforward of the current crop of politicians. I don’t always agree with her but I can respect the fact that she knows what she things and is willing to tell you.

    • I think it depends on who you follow, Paul. I get endless entertainment following Trump, for example. But more seriously, Twitter offers a gateway to stuff I wouldn’t normally stumble upon. Articles from US and British mainstream media, pressure groups and political websites; people who indulge my love of history and archaeology. I tend not to follow “celebrities”. For me, the 30% (or less) of interesting content makes it worthwhile to endure/ignore the crap. Also the doubling of the character count has made a positive difference – sometimes!

      • I’m sure you’re right about who you follow. In my case, I generally ignored celebrities — I’m not interested and, as with all communication technologies, I use them in order to find interesting conversations.

        I found that Twitter was fine for superficial conversations for which no nuance is required, but for anything of any depth, it really wasn’t the right platform (for me).

        I did hear about the larger character limimit, but haven’t felt motivated to go back and look at it.

      • Fair enough!

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