David Omand, who ran GCHQ, argues that Twitter and Facebook embolden the far Rightby David Omand / June 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
I still regard it as a higher form of magic that I can use a phone to share my views with 2.8bn other social media users. But Twitter and Facebook have a darker side. I have seen them amplify and encourage the growth of radical voices, most worryingly on the far right, where Alt-Right and other extremist tendencies have in recent years gained ground. These forces are becoming so powerful that they now threaten the very foundations of western democracy.
The internet’s pioneers thought the online world would lead to a mass engagement with global challenges such as conflict, the environment and poverty. The pooling of personal experiences would lead to a greater tolerance of diversity, and a deeper sense of a shared consciousness. That, at least, was the hope and some of those benefits are apparent, for example in the support networks formed by survivors of disease or disaster.
But massive social media use is also creating a contrary trend, one that taps into the deep roots of our most tribal instincts. It is comforting to be surrounded by those who share our experiences and reinforce our opinions—and that tends to be how it is on social media. The like-minded gather together. And when that happens, misfortunes tend to be blamed on the other. The result is an increasing fragmentation of politics into “us versus them” group—it is this that creates the very close relationship between the spread of social media and political extremism.
The commercialisation of social media has always relied on “high-impact” content: the more striking a tweet or a post, the more people will see it. This has elevated the visual over the written, the provocative headline over the nuanced article. Social media feeds off—and amplifies—the passionate expression of beliefs, even to the extent of promoting subversive conspiracy theories with no basis whatsoever. This is a system that encourages a short attention span, the reduction of the complex to the soundbite.
Anonymity lends the online world its especially nasty flavour. It encourages a crudeness that would not be tolerated face to face. A sense of online disinhibition feeds attacks on those who espouse contrary views and the effect can be very powerful.
Of course, politics will always be a contact sport for…