Social media is a dictatorship

This week I finally achieved what I have been secretly craving for about three years now. Someone blocked me on Twitter. I consider it a badge of honour, a digital ASBO – although I wasn’t exactly being anti-social, just honest.

It strikes me, however, that being honest online is a new and disturbing form of ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. Abusive and insulting, I can understand. I’ve had plenty of that and can testify as to how upsetting such overenthusiastic, mindless yobbishness can be. But if there’s an arena in which one should feel free to express honest opinion, it’s the internet. Especially with a famous columnist renowned for dishing out her own poison-laden dollops of candour.

I prefer to use Twitter as a recommendation tool rather than an open playground of gossip, in-jokes and humble-bragging, and the other day posted a link to a brilliant feature in The Independent newspaper. Well it was half-brilliant. Under the headline Should Ched Evans return to his football career?, two writers debated the notorious case of the apparently unrepentant rapist. Editor-turned-PR guru Simon Kelner wrote an eloquent denunciation of the braying mob, reminding us that if we are to put our own judgement above that of the legal system, anarchy lurks just around the corner.

On the other side, one of the newspaper’s highest-paid contributors, Grace Dent, wrote just as forcefully but far more incoherently, meandering through a maze of conflicting arguments. It was a rant about herself, social media bullies and the terrible things that men do to women, not a sustained polemic about an unremorseful Mr Evans and whether we should sympathise with his increasingly desperate attempts to resurrect a career after serving a jail sentence.

So I Tweeted it thus: ‘Perfect eg of a journalist who knows what a thesis/coherent argument is…and one who doesn’t.’

A bit smug, not terribly insulting but suitably opinionated and, I thought, of marginal interest to my 1,038 followers.

Unfortunately, Grace didn’t quite see it as that and proceeded to block me from viewing her account or sending her messages (I now follow only 1,919 people, which is probably 1,300 too many but I’m a sensitive soul and don’t like to upset people by un-following them).

Anyway, rather surprised that something so tame and innocuous had upset a national newspaper columnist who enjoys dishing it out to all and sundry, I asked her through a friend’s Twitter account: ‘Do u block everyone who might disagree with your writing? Isn’t criticism, not nastiness, part of privilege of being a columnist?’ To which she responded: ‘Yes I block absolutely everyone who disagrees with me. Thank you for getting in touch x.’

Now I may have mistook her renowned spiky, sarcastic northern wit for pathetic thin-skinnedness but I suspect not. I criticised her writing (not her argument, by the way, although I do disagree with parts of that too) and so she deleted me from her 213,367 list of followers. And it made me wonder whether any other high-profile figures would act quite so vainly if I ever passed inconsequential, meaningless judgements on them. Would Keira Knightley, for instance, ban me from her films because I think her acting is often insufferably wooden? Would Jamie Oliver eject me from his restaurants for suggesting that his ‘simple’ 30 Minute Meal cookbook is one of the most impractical guides to have ever been published since the Virgin’s Guide To Better Sex? Would Richard Littlejohn scratch me off his Christmas Card list if I dared to admit that I loathe his brilliantly-written rants?

Isn’t the point of being a national newspaper columnist – one of only a tiny handful of such enormously privileged positions – to create debate, spark a row, get half of the readers nodding their heads and the other half shaking them, to lower the bait and see who grabs on to it? Not to shut down anyone who might disagree with them.

But Grace’s reaction is symptomatic of the never-say-boo-to-a-goose, sycophantic culture in which we find ourselves in. Everyone passes their exams and no one is allowed to fail. Ex-professionals never dare to suggest that national sporting teams lose because they play badly, just that the team ‘gave their all’. Celebrities flounce out of interviews if journalists dare ask an awkward question. There are no longer winners and losers in primary school three-legged races, everyone gets a prize. Calling my son stupid for getting 3 out of 20 in his chemistry test because he forgot to bring home his revision and then played football in the break before the test ‘is not going to help anyone Grant, you can’t call people stupid.’ Why not? Joel was. It is.

Why can’t you say what you think? Within reason, of course. Honestly, when did honesty become such a crime? Me castigating my son is the same as me telling Grace her writing on that occasion wasn’t terribly good – although I’m not for a moment suggesting I’m any better than her. She’s the popular, famous, wealthy one with a full head of hair, after all. It’s only my opinion. It doesn’t mean your columns will always be bad, Grace, just as Joel won’t always be stupid. But it was and so was he. Deal with it. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen, or that my opinion (even if it is wrong) doesn’t exist.

Social media sites are the 21st century equivalent of the Magic Mirror that the Evil Queen consults each morning in the Snow White fairytale: ‘Twitter, Twitter in my hand / Who is the smartest in the land?’

The concept of ‘followers’ has been infected by a desperation to be loved. Deluded souls – with notable exceptions such as Piers Morgan, Alan Sugar, Dan Hodges and the like – now consider following to be another word for agreeing. The internet has killed debate. Its anonymity fosters an appallingly aggressive form of bullying but it also discourages people from exchanging thoughts. Disagree? You’re wrong. I don’t care what you say, you’re just wrong, go away. Only last week, a notorious Twitter account, The Godless Spellchecker, which politely challenges religious zealotry was suspended and then restored, prompting the account’s owner – a Manchester office worker called Stephen – to say that Twitter’s complaints system was ‘being abused in order to silence dissenting voices or genuine civil criticism’.

One of Ukip’s most eloquent leaders also happens to be a friend of mine – and dissent is our default setting. I disagree vehemently with what his party stands for and he thinks, not unreasonably, that I’m a pampered middle-class lefty. We like arguing and he likes trouncing me (I let him win, he’s a sensitive politician) but the time spent at loggerheads is richly life-affirming. We’re both right and both wrong and we enjoy being told so.

Instead of being encouraged to apologise for upsetting people’s increasingly fragile egos with just the slightest slight, we mustn’t allow the web’s compulsion for conformity to negate our capacity to learn something of ourselves through the opinions of others. I discovered this myself after writing an article about enduring – and enjoying – a rather painful midlife crisis. Most of the respondents to my published testimony were fairly sympathetic but a healthy minority attacked me for allowing my self-indulgent introspection to get the better of me. Grow up and man up they screamed. And, on reflection, they were right.

It isn’t about upsetting people, it’s about disagreeing and criticising. Columnists are not right or wrong, just opinionated. I know for a fact that some of them don’t believe their stated opinions but it’s the expression of them that makes them the most essential element of any newspaper.

I once worked with someone who was unable to countenance opposing views. Bizarrely, they were also a journalist. Personally, I got into journalism because it meant I’d be paid to argue. Anyway, they would visibly redden and tighten up when anyone (OK, me) would try to proffer a different line to see where the idea might end up through some robust debate. But having a different opinion, in their eyes, was tantamount to treachery.

I fear that that this is what our new era of shortened attention spans and lemming-like social media sycophancy has exacerbated. A digital society which hasn’t been democratised by interaction but stamped upon by it. You’re either with us or against us, agree with us or deleted, part of our gang or a weirdo.

That’ll teach me for being so honest.

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