Some time in 2011, Conservative MP Conor Burns informed Margaret Thatcher of the latest Twitter rumour about her death. “I think the corpse would like another gin and tonic,” the Baroness replied, without missing a beat.
I’ve had the pleasure of spending time in the Iron Lady’s company on two occasions in the last few months, and though the subject of these unpleasant social media rumours is yet to come up in conversation, she has evidently reached an age where such things are shrugged off with an old-fashioned look and a magisterial aperçu.
Just as well, really. Because they’re coming thick and fast this year, aren’t they? I count four Twitter scares in just the past six months, with the latest, last week, even being repeated by ABC’s White House correspondent.
We should expect more from our journalists, yes. But the problem I’m afraid is with the public at large, which has proven itself grossly irresponsible and prone to outrageous and I believe punishable tastelessness in such cases. I’ve argued in the past, not entirely seriously, for the replacement of those irritating “type the letters below” things with IQ tests to prevent morons from blogging and tweeting. (What people choose to do with their bovine contemporaries within the walled confines of Facebook is, I suppose, a matter for them.) But now I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t a good idea.
Patrick Kidd wrote a pretty good piece in the Times on Thursday, the thrust of which was that this fetish for being first with news has led amateur fog horns on social media to give up worrying if what they’re retweeting is actually correct or not. I wonder, with something of a heavy heart, whether many of those retweeting the news he spoke of were simply overcome with pleasure at the thought it might be accurate.
I’m also starting to dread the day the unhappy news does come to pass, such will the disgusting vitriol and glee-making inevitably be from dumpy public sector workers in the Midlands and economically illiterate Liverpudlians. We saw fresh signs of it last week. I won’t name the person responsible, but an amateur “comedian” from the North of England (Newcastle’s answer to Jonnie Marbles, perhaps) tweeted something so obscene and offensive about what he would like to do to the Lady’s remains I nearly choked.
I think that’s what’s going on when people get caught up in a retweeting frenzy: it’s not, as Patrick Kidd thinks, because they want to be first, irrespective of truth. I think it’s because they want the news they are thoughtlessly spreading to their followers to be true.
That should trouble all of us. Although there is no doubt the Labour establishment will condemn an outpouring of vicious hatred for an old lady, the outpouring will inevitably come and it will be horrific to observe for those of us who cower in fear before the era of turbo-charged mass hatred that Twitter has ushered in.
Free speech has its limits. There was talk earlier this year about a state funeral for Britain’s greatest peacetime Prime Minister, but I wonder whether a greater good wouldn’t be done for the country in the long run by ferocious and extensive criminal prosecutions for those repulsive individuals publicly inflicting their fetid and deviant desires on the rest of us.