An abhorrent piece appeared in The Telegraph this afternoon, wishing ill on the President of France, and trying see an upside for the British and Brexit in the comeuppance of Macron. I am not going to link to it – because that is the point.
Then of course the usual happened – decent people on the other side poured into the discussion to comment on how abhorrent this was – people I really respect like Deborah Meaden, Jon Henley, Paul Singh, Peter Geoghegan. The Telegraph even deleted the tweet linking to the story, and even though at the time of writing the article is still on its website it is nowhere to be seen on the homepage currently.
It is a classic of the genre. Say something abhorrent. Drag to the Overton window to the right – by publishing such a thing in a previously reputable publication. Generate a strong and emotional reaction on the other side. Get a load of clicks. Partially apologise (or in this case delete the tweet). Job done. Until tomorrow.
What can we do about this?
Controlling our own behaviour is about all we can do at the individual level.
Back a decade or so ago, at a time when I was in a bit of a career low (not as if I am at any sort of high now), I was talking to one of my most astute old friends about an issue that I had no real career mentor to speak of. “You’ll never find one,” my friend said. “Focus instead on doing your best to be a mentor for others.” He did not mean this badly, and his words returned to me today after this episode on the abhorrent story in The Telegraph.
So what does that mean in practice? I am not sure I can be a mentor for others, but if I am to have any credibility to talk about online behaviour, I ought to at least be able to practice what I preach.
At the most obvious level good behaviour means not boosting (or inadvertently boosting) things you find abhorrent. Things you disagree with, sure, but within the bounds of the acceptable. It ought to mean giving attention to people whose views and contributions would otherwise not gather a large audience – people whose content is not on a media platform, or not already given an audience thanks to who they work for. Or, putting it another way, people who are further down the (social) media food chain than you are.
Paying attention to gender balance, and to groups often excluded from political debate, is vital, but is all too often overlooked. Try in tone to not assume ill intent from someone when there is none. Don’t swear. If you get it wrong, apologise. If you see someone else got it wrong, avoid the temptation to be triumphalist about it (even when the person in question has not shown similar humility in the past). If you need to, send a private message to a person to explain something that might have been mis-construed. Don’t tweet unsubstantiated gossip, even if it will gather loads of clicks, and if it turns out you tweeted something that turned out to be untrue, delete and say sorry. If you have found someone’s contribution useful or helpful, say so and thank them, but also do not be precious about it if you are not thanked – it is only your behaviour that you can control after all.
Do I do all of this? Hell no. Definitely not consistently. But I try to. But it does not work all of the time. Some of my quick rants end up with masses more traction than the more time consuming and well thought out things – which is probably a lesson in itself. Retweet that thoughtful thing, rather than that amusing cheap-shot.
In my weaker moments I too wish I had an audience as large as Peston or Kuenssberg where I could recount what an anonymous source told me without a moment’s thought, but that is not my character and I am not close to being good enough to get a job like that anyway. I generally then turn back to making another Brexit diagram in the forlorn hope that actually explaining what is going on might matter – because after all that is what I value in others too – the ability to allow me to understand the politics around me.
And yes, if I am not sticking to what I write here, hold me to it. Accountability is good too!