Politics Week, 4: Social Media
50/50. Isn’t it strange how often we’ve seen that split in the last decade or so? And it has affected politics a lot: the Brexit vote, various foreign elections too numerous to mention, any number of national polls on topics of the moment, and so forth…
Social media is the unspoken novelty in British politics. By unspoken, I mean its influence is still difficult to detect. It is occult, though most people can see it’s there… somewhere… yet they’re not sure. They know there is something not quite right, but they’re too addicted to their phones to find out what that might be. Some have seen the documentaries, but many more haven’t. Some have read the nervous headlines declaiming social media addiction, but many more haven’t. Some have been told at school that too much online activity is dangerous, but the Californian companies who dominate the internet care nothing about that. Theirs is an attention economy based on data. They want to steal your mind – and they’re making a very good job of it, just like the ad men did a couple of generations earlier with their inhumane psychological techniques. When it comes to power and exploitation, mind theft is a central technique.
Social media makes this easy. In part this is because social media takes away the overwhelming majority of non-verbal communication. You can tell when a politician is lying because their lips move. You can’t do that with written words online – unless you go 100% cynical. And who wants to do that? Who has the time or the energy or the inclination? Especially when your independence flew out of the window with your mind.
The polarisation of British politics, like that of the whole world, is due in the main to social media and its characteristic mode of reaction: immediate, gut instinct, no time taken for thought or reflection, an anonymised environment, and a complete lack of consequences to actions owing in the main to its lack of regulation, but also to that possibility of anonymity. It’s the new Wild West for the same reason the old Wild West appeared: made by boys, run by boys, occupied by boys. (For some boys, the y can be replaced by a t.)
I think social media is largely responsible for the change in politics and the political environment and debate which has occurred over the last decade or so. Polarisation to a precise 50/50 split is the new norm. In a process called cybermigration by the eminent writer Mary Aiken, behaviour deemed normal on the internet migrates to the real world. This is what has happened to politics. Everybody creeps to one of two extremes, which then exist in stasis at opposite ends of the opinion scale. This online behaviour then transfers to the real world, infecting political debate, with the effects that we have seen in Britain particularly since 2016. For me, the Brexit vote was the first indication that some new disease was affecting the British: the hysteria of the debate, the irrationalities, the obvious lies, deception and fraud. Then the 50/50 result.
But we should not be surprised. People’s online behaviour cybermigrated. This may be our black-and-white future.