Can Twitter Save the World for Democracy?

img-thingIt’s generally accepted that while Facebook can be horribly right-wing and parochial, Twitter is both more cosmopolitan and more left-wing. A few years ago, I was hopeful that Twitter (as a medium in its own right as opposed to being a mere platform) could become the counter-narrative, the great hope of the counterculture, the voice we needed. I get a bit depressed when it fails to offer me the alternative news agenda I crave, but the hope was there.

Well, we’ve been through a couple of election cycles since Twitter was born 10 years ago, and what do we find? That last time around, in spite of five years of sniping, fact-checking, and counter-narrating  the Con-Lib government and their socially divisive and destructive policies, the British electorate not only didn’t vote for left-leaning parties in significant numbers, but actually allowed the Conservatives another five years with a working majority.

Twitter, it seems, had let us down. And elections, as they ever were, are won by appealing to (a) individual pocketbooks* and (b) xenophobia and (c) class divisions. As long as people think there’s a chance they will be better off than some other people; as long as politicians successfully point to immigrants as a vague threat to our way of life; as long as the narrative blames anything other than capitalism for poverty, then the Conservatives can win.

I used to worry that an independent Scotland would take away any chance that there would ever be a Labour majority again. (I’m aware that Blair would have won his elections without Scottish seats, but I still worried.) And then, last time around, Scotland rejected the Labour party and we now live in a world that’s pretty much as it would have been had Scotland voted for independence in their referendum. In this world, Karl Marx has not been rehabilitated by the 2008 banking crash, and there is a permanent Conservative majority thanks to the voters of England.

So I’ve been ruminating (and fulminating) since the Cons won last year, and I’ve grown thoroughly disillusioned with Twitter as a medium. As a machine to kill fascists, it’s less effective than Woody Guthrie’s guitar was. Retweeting that photo of the Bullingdon boys seems to have been ineffective in preventing their re-election. Pointing out that politicians frequently lie doesn’t seem to stop them from lying. Asking for retweets to save the NHS is not saving the NHS. Pointing out the insanity and corruption of the Academies plan for education doesn’t seem to be changing the horrible reality for teachers and students. Pointing out the blatant gerrymandering of the Conservatives, as they dismantle local democracy and try to weaken trade unions and adjust constituency boundaries, doesn’t seem to be stopping them in their attempt to set themselves up a 1000-year reich.

What Twitter did seem to achieve was the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. I haven’t sympathised with a Labour leader more since the days of Michael Foot. But just as they did with Michael Foot, the right wing mediaª have set out to destroy Corbyn (but not too quickly: they don’t want to give Labour time to regroup before the next election). And as horrible as this government is, as incompetent and corrupt as they are, the fact that Labour are at this stage only ahead in the polls within the (considerable, last time around) margin of error is a foreshadowing of the disaster to come in 2020. Doesn’t help than his own MPs don’t acknowledge the will of the Party members, but that was always the case. The professional class of politicians, on both sides of the House, does not reflect the true values of the core memberships.

And here’s the problem. Twitter, collectively, seemed to agree that facts would win the argument. But they don’t. A brief, frightened, glance across the water at the goings-on in the last few US election cycles is enough to tell us that. Failing facts, Twitter seemed to agree that this government could be embarrassed into… changing? Disappearing? I’m not sure, exactly. But you can’t, usually, embarrass these people. Cameron is still there, even after the pig’s head story. Think on that.

Their calculations are all completely conscious and cynical. They’ve already adjusted to a world in which they know they will never get the votes of the majority. They’ve given up trying to appeal to the broad electoral base and are instead ruthlessly targeting the 30% or so of better-off voters who will return them to Parliament with a majority over and over again, thanks to our hopelessly undemocratic electoral system, skewed population, and South-East-focused economy.

People who live in Wales and work in the steel industry are never going to vote conservative. Those who live in the North and see their homes flooded are not ‘their people’. Teachers don’t, on the whole, vote Tory, but pensioners who hate and fear the young, will. And so it goes. You can’t embarrass them into caring about people they know won’t vote for them.

So, Twitter isn’t doing a very good job of providing a counter-narrative. It is, as it’s often accused of being, a vast echo chamber, which I find increasingly depressing to be around. I’d leave, but it will leave a gaping hole in my daily habits that I wouldn’t know how to fill.


*By pocketbooks, we do of course mean wallets and bank accounts.

ª The BBC, as an institution, did use to offer some slight balance in the news media landscape, but they’ve been both running scared about the Charter renewal and (by now) thoroughly infiltrated by right wing journalists/editors, so they’re actually worse than useless. And pointing out how biased they are on Twitter doesn’t seem to have any effect.

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