Mic Wright today sets out the case against David Cameron joining Twitter. “It’s like deciding to pull on a Lady Gaga style meat dress and dive into the lion enclosure at London Zoo,” he writes. “The Prime Minister, who spent years thinking LOL still stood for ‘lots of love’, can only end up embarrassing himself and, in turn, the office he holds.”
With the greatest respect to Mic, I find this argument troubling. It seems to suggest not only that politicians and other public figures should give up on crucial communications platforms simply because there’s a lot of thuggish behaviour about, which would be spineless, but also that the predominantly young users of social media should get to dictate who is cool enough to join in their party, which is arrogant.
In fact it occurs to me that more public figures is precisely what Twitter needs. We have seen how technology reveals the ugly underbelly of human nature in recent years. The problem isn’t with the technology; it’s with us. We can’t be trusted to use these new tools responsibly, preferring abuse to argument. And that’s precisely why more genteel thought and speech would be so welcome.
If Twitter is to survive as a useful and influential instrument, and if it is to retain its position in public discourse, we must learn to relocate our humanity and kindness for our fellow man. Strong arguments are essential for a healthy democracy, but vile abuse must be stamped out. If Cameron can join Twitter and rise above the worst of the abuse, perhaps it will give way to something marvellous.
Banning social media users who are unable to treat their fellow man with dignity and respect may be a step too far – I’m not sure – but what’s clear is that it is Twitter that must change, not the public figures who wish to use it to disseminate their messages. If it’s true that the political Right encounters more hostility on Twitter than the Left, it should invade, not capitulate.
Twitter does not belong solely to gobby young people like me and Mic. Nor should we have the temerity to advise on who should and should not hop aboard: that is a form of censorship, and we generally support free speech in different circumstances. If Cameron is brave enough to submit himself to the wilds of social media, why should he not do so?
Mic says he doesn’t want “to live in a world where the Prime Minister uses hashtags or feels obliged to recommend Boris as his Follow Friday”. But the comic potential of David Cameron on Twitter is limitless. Why deny sketchwriters, quiz show panellists and our fellow tweeters the joy of seeing Cameron’s hopeless fumbling?
And there is that wider and more important point. We really do have to wrest control of our public discourse from the brutes, thugs and self-regarding media types (I include myself in at least one of those categories). Their fire must be fought with the water of propriety, decency and good manners. And it should start with an enthusiastic welcome for anyone brave enough to wade in.
Rupert Murdoch was considered foolish for poking the lion by joining Twitter. But his presence has been a terrific success, allowing the public an unprecedented glimpse into the psychology of one of the most powerful men on the planet. Three tweets from Murdoch are together more enlightening than thirty pages of his unofficial biographer Michael Wolff’s waspish and hateful prose.
That sort of direct access to our Prime Minister is a thrilling prospect. I’ve written before that journalists ought to retain a sense of critical distance on social media. But I don’t think politicians are subject to the same requirements. In fact, it serves their interests – and ours – for them to do the opposite, so long as we can all learn to show each other a bit more empathy.
I want to get to know the man running the country a bit better. Don’t you?