The strange story of how the decline and fall of political life has been fuelled by a website that started off as a platform for sharing gossip and cat photosby Rafael Behr / September 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
At 3.12pm on 20th November 2014, Emily Thornberry hit tweet. The Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, then serving as Shadow Attorney General, posted a photograph of a house in Kent, decked with three flags bearing the St George’s Cross. Her caption? “Image from #Rochester.” At 6.15pm she tweeted again, apologising for “any offence caused by the three flag picture,” adding that “people should fly the England flag with pride!” By 10.30pm she had resigned from the front bench.
The political autopsy lasted days, focusing largely on the question of whether Thornberry had opened a window on to metropolitan Labour’s cultural alienation from—and perhaps even contempt for—working-class voters in small towns. But looking back, the significance of that episode is not as a snapshot of political turbulence, but as a development in the process that turns turbulence into news. What stands out is the medium, not the message. In autumn 2014, Twitter was already a recreational habit for Britain’s political class. But “Image from #Rochester” marked a watershed moment for the social media website. Without the super-accelerated online frenzy, there was no story.
Four years later, the Twitterstorm is not only routine, it is the qualifying benchmark for newsworthy controversy. Anyone who doesn’t squander hours every day on the platform might be baffled as to why its name occurs with such frequency in news bulletins. A majority of UK voters still do not have a Twitter account. Yet the site’s impact in Westminster and on the way politics works is real and exceptional, not because of how many people use it, but because of who they are—politicians, their devotees and the journalists supposed to be holding them to account.
Whether the controversy is Boris Johnson’s comments about the niqab, or Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism, Twitter is the place where anger congregates and provokes more anger in a near-perpetual cycle. And those are cases where the initial offence occurred in the analogue world. There are others that exist purely for Twitter. It is a laboratory capable of synthesising scandal of its own: Labour’s Dawn Butler denouncing Jamie Oliver’s “appropriation” of Jamaican jerk rice, or Tory Remainer Simon Hart using Twitter to tell a Brexiteer colleague, Chris Green, that “nobody gives a fuck” about his resignation. The sparks ignite partisan wildfires that rage intensely for a few hours or even days. They…