Case study: polite politics versus Twitter twaddle

Online abuse would have warped my perceptions if I hadn’t met Corbynite activists in real life
September 20, 2018


Like many who had not seen Labour’s strong election showing coming last year, I headed to conference 2017 newly-curious about the Corbyn movement. Along with two hacks from national dailies, I popped into the lefty fringe festival, “The World Transformed,” staged by Compass and Momentum. The hall was packed, ages ranged from students to pensioners, all listening to stalwart socialist academics talking intelligently but very abstractly about things like “hegemony.” Some were probably giving the same speech they’d been giving since the ‘70s, but suddenly—and remarkably—they now held a large audience transfixed. I took a snap and tweeted it with a joshingly mystified caption: “a packed hall at the Momentum fringe to talk about, err, hegemony.”

After the speeches, we were put in discussion groups. For me, this was the point: I wanted to chat to these new activists, and gauge what motivated them. The eight or nine in my group were friendly, civil and ready to discuss policies with open ears and minds. One started talking about how he’d kept his local library going by volunteering unpaid; the talk turned to how Labour could live its values by wider community activism. I felt that I’d entered the den of a supposedly millenarian sect, and found myself surrounded by folk raising funds to fix a church roof—the sort, in fact, who might have been able to make a reality of Cameron’s Big Society. I wasn’t sure it stacked up as a programme, but all the engagement made for a refreshing break with soundbite politics.

Then I went back to the hotel and opened Twitter. That “hegemony” quip had spun out of control. An online mob (none of whom gave any indication of having been in the hall) had seized on it as a declaration of war. Some posts were funny: one chap took the time to put together a Clark-No-Gramsci-Yes montage (above). Others were weird: my forehead zoomed in on and shared; others angrily denounced me (or Prospect) for being unable to cope with big ideas. I tried to engage, but got nowhere: once a tweeted joke has misfired, there’s no rowing back: caveats don’t go viral.

There was nothing threatening, and as a white bloke I’m immune from the nastiest stuff. But it was pretty hard to ignore. On reflection the disturbing aspect was how it would have warped my perceptions if I hadn’t met the real activists offline. My fellow journalists had left the hall straight after the speeches. The only Corbyn crowd they know is that which rages at them on Twitter. No wonder some develop a tribal dislike.

Read Rafael Behr on how Twitter poisoned politics