As anyone who has tried to have a sensible discussion on Twitter, or who has trawled through the sometimes deranged comments under political blogs, will testify: the internet as a forum for political discussion isn’t always a happy or useful place. On social media, it’s hardly ever. Last week’s events, what with Michael Gove’s exit from his education post in the Cabinet and reaction to Israel’s behaviour in Gaza, have once more showed why.
Not a minute now passes without someone posting gruesome images of dead Arab children, or a teacher declaring her delight at the departure of Gove. This isn’t to belittle the plight of Gazans or the workload of teachers. But the way people have been carrying on you’d think teachers are the only people in the world who have problems, and that Israel was the Fourth Reich – or, as Alexei Sayle has bizarrely suggested, the new incarnation of Jimmy Savile.
The problem here is the medium. Social media encourages self-obsession; it encourages us perpetually to manicure and manipulate our public image. In the process, it gives us an inflated sense of self-importance, while paradoxically making us feel more worthless.
Facebook, a medium that gives users the impression that everyone else’s life is amazing and that only you have problems, is isolating. Social media feeds insecurity with its insatiable desire to be ‘liked’ or retweeted, or to impress people with how much you care about something everyone else also cares about. Only more so. The current dismal exercise in conspicuous one-upmanship over Gaza has not been pretty.
Social media makes people more narrow-minded and myopic in their politics. Twitter users harvest news from tweeters they already agree with, and from sources that don’t challenge their opinions. And it’s a particularly unsuitable medium for political exchange because the written word isn’t suited for conveying - or facilitating - doubt and nuance. Sarcasm is nigh-on impossible. And as we all know, the self-righteous, privilege-checking online mob, armed with certitudes, can be far more ferocious when behind the safety of a keyboard and a pseudonym.