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Planet of the social media apes

It’s a funny old world. Cast your mind back, if you will, to early January and the battle cry that became a worldwide mantra of defiance in the face of terror: Je Suis Charlie. The phrase was written on placards, T-shirts, and almost every single Facebook and Twitter post. Some people probably tattooed it on their unmentionables.

Not everyone was enamoured. Dominic Lawson, writing in The Sunday Times of London, was one of the few who had the gall to challenge it and, even then, with a (tongue-in-cheek) precursor – “Please don’t take offence – but, non, je ne suis pas Charlie.” The point he was making centred on the hypocrisy of some of those using the phrase.

But the message many well-meaning people had wanted to convey after a group of French journalists were shot dead by Islamic extremists, in a most horrific act of violence, was as honourable as Voltaire himself: we may not agree with, perhaps even abhor, the message the French journalists were trying to put across as they depicted religious figures in a derogatory manner, but we stand firm in solidarity with their right to say it. That is one of the very principles upon which democracy is based, and we have all seen what happens in countries where this sacrosanct right has been eroded.

The social media – that abyss we cannot live without that people these days refer to as an authority on everything – was ablaze with genuine messages and bandwagon jumpers. And as the clickers clicked away, commenters yelped in muted delight as they saw their Facebook likes and Twitter retweets reach stratospheric levels. That’s, after all, what social media is about, isn’t it? Sharing and searching for a congratulatory pat on the pack for being a member of a group with the same interests and opinions.

But how many social mediaites actually stop and think about the effect this is having on discussion, and about its potential effects on our democracy, where, much like Jesus and a host of unpleasant dictators – I am making no attempt to link the two just in case anyone is in doubt – what we are seeking to attract is ‘followers’? How about welcoming ‘dissenters’ for a pleasant change?

Sure, there are enough trolls in the social media space to indicate that all is not well in the state of Twitter and Facebook. But that’s fine, for we can block them, condemn them, ostracise them and get lots of our friends to give them the thumbs down. Because what we form part of are not actually groups at all, but gangs. Gangs of bullies, sort of modern day stoning mobs that mobilise when people express an opinion that irks us. When used in this manner social media can be like an oppressive school playground, except that you don’t have to explain to your parents afterwards how you acquired that rather original shade of eye shadow (by headbutting somebody’s knuckles tended to be my favourite answer).

Which is probably why, when a Times of Malta columnist wrote an opinion piece earlier this week urging the Nationalist Party not “to give in to gay pressure” groups, the very people that prove Lawson dead right condemned not only the author of the piece but also this newspaper for publishing it. “Don’t read it again,” some said. What, because we committed the heinous crime of allowing someone’s opinion to be published?

First things first. The only voice of the newspaper is the leading article, leader, editorial – whatever you wish to call it. The other pages dedicated to opinion – be it letter, article or online comment – are for the public, who are free to express their opinion irrespective of whether their peers agree with them or not. And before the censor-brigade wade in and display their limited knowledge of the workings of an established medium, yes, it’s true that we do not publish all comment. No newspaper does and if they did all editors would be out of a job. But, as Times of Malta’s columnists would be first to attest, the decision over whether to publish an article/cartoon or not is never conditioned by the editor’s propensity to agree with it.

Quite the contrary. I have vehemently disagreed with many opinion pieces that have been published in the newspaper/online and am bemused by some comments on our website, but I would be the first to hand in my resignation when that becomes a criterion for publication. And for the record, it has escaped the social media gang’s attention that the article in question was not in sync with editorial stands we have taken.

However, I firmly believe Times of Malta is all the richer for allowing diverse opinions to find a place in the newspaper so long as they are not overtly offensive, overtly homophobic or overtly racist (and so on, and so forth).  And guess what? People are allowed to reply.

This is where we depart radically from social media. We are not a forum that seeks gratification from ‘likes’ or ‘followers’. We are a forum for debate in this country, where people can duel as long as they are civilised about it; where people can see and hear every side of a multifaceted an argument; where people can write what some others might not necessarily want to read… because in our book that’s ok.

Not only is it ok, it is fundamental to a healthy society; which is why it was necessary for someone like Lawson to challenge the masses when he objected to the use of Je Suis Charlie. The alternative is to live in a world of social media monkeys who prefer to cover their eyes, mouths and ears just because they don’t like what other people have to say. Migrate to the planet of social media apes if you want to, but it sounds like a pretty dull place to me.  

 

P.S. I will be posting this blog on social media for likes, retweets and favourites. Please share generously.

Twitter @stevemallia71

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