Scrolling through my social media timeline often feels like the visual and mental equivalent of walking on broken glass. No matter how carefully I curate my feed, there is inevitably a retweet or repost that doesn’t feel quite right.
One shard of glass that cuts particularly deeply is the sight of politicians engaging in the melee. Employees of private companies have to eschew social media altogether or display a caveat of “views are my own” on their public pronouncements, so it continues to be shocking that elected representatives – those with the highest impact and the biggest responsibility – are not subject to the same constraints.
And it’s not just the Trumpian extremes. It’s the daily mud-slinging, snark, and generally corrosive tone. Even those who ostensibly do social media well – those who grew up with it and know how to handle the trolls and abuse – still take the bait.
US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an example of a politician who skilfully toggles between good-humoured dismissals of her opponents’ barbs and serious political messaging, yet it still seems strange to scroll through memes and gifs only to realise that one of them has been posted by a member of the US House of Representatives.
Maybe I’m old fashioned (or just old). But even if the off-handed tone and meme-filled posts are just part of the new online vocabulary of the younger generation, the obvious jeopardy of social media is still there.
Take the case of Ilhan Omar, who responded to a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald that read: "GOP leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans."
Twitter compels us to be colourful. Its enforced brevity then exacerbates the problem, so users dispense with any nuance.
Omar chose to reply to this contentious issue with all the subtlety of a hammer: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby", she tweeted, followed by a music emoji, supposedly in reference to the song of the same name.
Despite her issuing a fulsome apology, the question in my mind still remained: how can anyone, especially a politician, not realise that whatever the intention, such a tweet would appear to be promoting an antisemitic trope?
No one wants to hear about your summer reading list
The answer is that social media in general, and Twitter in particular, seem to blur the lines between some people’s inside voices and their public ones.
In short, it makes people less politically correct because the entire platform is set up in a way that encourages the amplification of the individual’s voice, character and opinion. It’s a menagerie of users competing to see who can best vanquish their opponents with quickfire facts and wit.
Twitter compels us to be colourful. Its enforced brevity then exacerbates the problem, so users dispense with any nuance for the sake of a clear staccato shot that can have the most impact. That’s how you end up with “It’s all about the Benjamins”.
What’s more, unless you’re an esteemed academic, Barack Obama, or a respected older journalist or author, no one wants to read your sober posts about your summer reading list.
Politicians on social media normalise its sharpening tone and expose themselves to mistakes and partisan targeting.
And then there is the bear baiting of it all, the temptation to just let rip at an angry moment, which even the most composed bureaucrats fall victim to.
Take for example European council president Donald Tusk. Although he is usually beatific, Tusk lashed out at British prime minister Boris Johnson on Twitter while the pair were negotiating the UK’s departure from the EU: “What’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?”
Granted, Johnson can drive saints to madness, but what is the wisdom of such a tweet? Just on a basic tactical level, we are constantly told that Brexit negotiations are sensitive calculations of political bluff, and yet social media is where Brexit protagonists run to show their hands.
Politicians, delete your social media accounts
On the extreme end of this lack of restraint are those who seem to have decided that social media is, in fact, politics itself. Those who respond to every random bit of abuse by quoting it, amplifying it, and adding their own follow-up zinger.
When challenged about her swearing on Twitter, British politician Jess Phillips responded: “Dude I think it’s safe to say that when Kavanagh can become a Supreme Court judge, Donald ‘pussy grabbing’ Trump is the President I can say fuck.”
I am sure there is some valid point here about the differing levels of swearing tolerated by men and women in the public eye. But again, there is something to the view that there should be some distance between the fray and those who advocate for us in government. And the elephant in the timeline is that social media feeds on narcissism and the addiction to the flattering of that narcissism.
Politicians and senior bureaucrats might think they are being relatable and down to earth by battling it out on social media. However, they not only dictate the public tone and normalise its sharpening but also expose themselves to mistakes and partisan targeting. And that’s not to mention the general distraction from the very serious business of running a country.
The stakes are simply too high for them to be on social media.