The changing face of public discourse

I wrote recently a blog post about a group who been in the news regarding their trolling and bullying of folk online. The initial aim of that blog was to talk about how social media has actually changed public discourse but, given that much of the news on the topic last week was about the ‘alt-right‘, it ended up being much of the post’s focus.

I’m studying a Communications post-graduate degree, so media is a big interest for me. What really interests me is how social media has evolved and what effects it has had on public speech and dialogue. In the decade or so that it has been around, it’s undeniable that it’s been a game-changer and how it has altered our attitudes and habits around communication.

Up until a few years ago, I loved the internet and embraced all of the new changes that occurred. It genuinely felt like a force for good.  Maybe it’s an age thing, but I’m certain now that the internet has more drawbacks than it does advantages. Social media has transformed the arts, in that if you’re hoping to make a living from music, photography, journalism or literature it’s made it a whole lot harder. It offers anyone a potential global audience, but the cold hard reality is that it’s killing many of these industries. The ‘great democratiser’ has levelled the playing field – but really, the idea that anyone can self-publish while great in theory, isn’t so great in practice.

I embraced Facebook pretty quickly, but it soon became a source of annoyance when they kept tinkering with it – in its original guise it was a lot of fun and I made friends with people who I’d never met in real life. Once Facebook etiquette and ‘good practice’ had coalesced it became less fun to be locked into the walled garden.

I took a while longer to get on-board the Twitter train, joining in 2009 with some scepticism but soon became hooked. I joined to chat with similar folk interested in politics and football; being able to connect with like-minded people who shared my political viewpoint and supported my football team seemed absolutely brilliant.

And in the first year or so of using it, I chatted to new people, became aware of new blogs and some great pieces of writing. It became a great tool for football fans who can’t make it to the game but want to discuss football stuff. It was a fertile ground for political discussion as the country (and wider global economy) began to feel the effects of the worst economic crisis in 80 years, and government-imposed austerity measures started to bite.

Following the London riots of 2011 in real time was social media at its best; watching unrest flare up in different pockets of the city and getting reports from twitter users at the scene(s) was better than any mainstream coverage could offer.

But after that, something started to happen – or maybe I just began to notice it more: the fighting, bickering and negativity.  Perhaps it was always there. Not being a woman, an ethnic minority, nor a high-profile person, I’m not statistically as likely to be subjected to abuse. Yet, reading through people’s feeds it seemed that it was turning into a forum where bullying, belittling and berating users was becoming the most common use for it. A platform where people went to rid themselves of all the anger and frustration that builds up through having a shitty job, an aggressive boss, a troubled relationship or just a very bigoted view of the world.

This seems to be the among people who are supposedly ‘like-minded’, the slightest fracture in our collective accord gives rise to disputes, arguments and bickering – on issues that have no real meaning or significance at all. Some issues are significant, and are of major import. Social media has turned most football fans into ranting, foaming monsters who want their manager sacked after one bad result, or who have become obsessed with the spending of money in the transfer window and the management of the football club, as if it was their money that was being spent. It’s almost as if the modern game has turned most football fans into amateur accountants.

And politics is no better. Twitter has become an echo chamber for partisans to shriek aneurysm-inducing tirades into the void hoping in desperation to change the world; a tactic that is most far removed from reasoned persuasion that one could ever hope for. If anyone has had their world view changed by this method, please step forward.

The on-going Labour leadership battle is a clear case in point. A schism has opened within the party that is irreconcilable, and with every day thousands and thousands of tweets from supporters of each side only help to broaden the ideological chasm that now exists in a party that has torn itself apart 140 characters at a time.

Social justice warriors, some well meaning, some spoiling for a fight – jump on the most tenuous acts of injustice or perceived slight – and seek to ruin reputations, credibility or debate. It’s right that people should be called out for expressing views that seek to harm or smear social sub-groups, or that re-enforce flimsy, inaccurate stereotypes. I can’t help feeling that the angry mob has tipped the balance in favour of widespread self-censorship and has seen withdrawal in public debate by reasoned voices and reasonable individuals.

Have we lost the art of civility? Have we fallen out of practice in being able to ‘agree to disagree’? It does seem that in feeding our will to power, our need for validation, that those who hold different opinions have become our mortal enemies.

Mainstream media hangs over us like an oppressive storm cloud that covers us all in a fug of negativity. It shapes not only public debate and opinion, but also manipulates our collective health and well-being.  The one-way/uni-directional  communication system that has been prevalent for decades makes us impotent. Social media  has torn this system asunder, presenting a right to reply, offering feedback on those narratives and giving a voice to the unheard.

Yet when the whole world has to share the same platform – are we any more empowered than when we had no voice at all?


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