Should everyone be allowed to tweet? Some argue that Twitter is a platform for free speech or it is nothing; others that it’s irresponsible to allow extremists a megaphone. My view is that while everyone should be allowed to tweet, not everyone should. Specifically, I would like politicians to stop tweeting, and not just the ones I disagree with. Twitter is the worst thing to ever happen to MPs, and therefore to politics, and therefore to us.
Politicians came to Twitter late. A few years ago, MPs who had only just got used to the idea of having a website began to consent to the advice of some perky young staffer to get a Twitter handle. At first, they delegated the task to said staffer, who used the platform to publish details of their boss’s itinerary, birthday wishes to the Queen, and an occasional picture of the MP at a village fete, standing next to a cow.
These days, MPs have seized control of the means of publication, and they use it to throw shade at their colleagues and get into spats with journalists. They shoot off hysterical tweets that glow with tinny outrage. They display an almost slick command of memes and gifs and crying face emojis. Some MPs still tweet in the old-fashioned style, and a few eschew it altogether; Ken Clarke has no presence on Twitter except for parody accounts (if we’re banning anything, let’s ban parody accounts). But many more have now leapt in with both thumbs.
Tweeting with the handbrake off is said to be an essential political skill, since what voters want from politicians is, above all, low impulse-control. Sorry, I mean authenticity. Politicians who aren’t constantly communicating whatever is on their mind or bubbling away in their gut will seem aloof, stiff and out of touch, so the theory goes. Voters are no longer satisfied with hearing politicians’ views on health policy while checking out the odd picture of their family; we now want direct, unmediated access to their souls, every hour of the day.
Supporters of this view can cite the otherwise inexplicable success of the current president of the United States, who appears to have no talent except for spilling his meagre brain into an electronic box. They can also point to a star of the American left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of whom commentators are apt to say, using the kind of awed tone once used to acknowledge a politician’s matchless expertise in foreign policy, that she is “so talented at social media”.
What this analysis misses is that Trump is mainly a creation of TV, first on his reality show and then on cable networks which covered every minute of his 2016 campaign as if it were a raging wildfire in California. Many of his own voters are uncomfortable with the president’s tweets; some research suggests he would actually be more popular if he tweeted less. “AOC”, meanwhile, would be a star whether or not Twitter existed. Her biggest moment since being elected to Congress was a forensic demolition of campaign finance laws, performed in a far older forum than Twitter: the Capitol.
Twitter hasn’t brought us closer to our rulers in any sense except one: we now consider them just as petty, shallow, self-obsessed and attention-seeking as the rest of us. We might notice certain individuals more than we did before, and we may even like some of them more, but we never respect them more for tweeting.
Allow me to propose a law of Twitter: it can increase a person’s fame but never their authority. Those with low fame have the most to gain; those with high authority, the most to lose. The more frequently that serious people tweet, the less seriously we take them. Richard Dawkins is a scientific authority, but because he has been unable to resist Twitter’s gratifications, he is, these days, hard to take seriously. (See his campaign to be allowed to take a jar of honey on a plane, which involved coining a new word for “jobsworth”. As he tweeted in 2013: “Bin Laden has won, in airports of the world every day. I had a little jar of honey, now thrown away by rule-bound dundridges. STUPID waste.”) Please, David Attenborough, never tweet.
Politicians are not the only group I would like to see recuse themselves from Twitter. When the press was based in Fleet Street, journalists met in the pubs to exchange gossip, embark on rants and bitch about their colleagues. Nobody would have thought it a good idea to publish those conversations. Twitter eats away at the public’s respect for the people who bring them the news just as it does for the politicians who make it. Perhaps journalists imagined that Twitter would give the public a glimpse of the hard work that goes into reporting the news. But instead of enhancing respect for what journalists do, Twitter imbues the profession with the all the gravitas of sugar-high toddlers on a bouncy castle.
This is not just about public perception. Twitter makes politicians and journalists do their jobs differently: they commit to views more hastily, burn relationships and shun nuance. Farhad Manjoo, a columnist for the New York Times, recently argued that Twitter is ruining journalism, because “fear of missing out, which is Twitter’s primary sensibility, requires that everyone offers an opinion before much is known”.
In order to maintain their authority, journalists need to be cool and even-handed referees of a torrid and confusing reality. But that kind of thing doesn’t play well on Twitter, which wants hot takes, and wants them now.
Twitter turns people who require a certain distance from the fray in order to do their jobs well into influence-seekers engaged in a freeform wrestling contest with activists, conspiracy theorists and Russian bots.
That’s why, as of today, I’m starting a campaign to stop MPs and politicians from tweeting. All I need is a hashtag.
This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty