By Ed Holtom
There is no doubt that the last four years in global politics will be recalled as a period of great unease, with numerous cultural watersheds and a complete reshaping of the way we engage with politics in our everyday lives. Though technology has brought political issues to the forefront of our collective consciousness in a way that just ten years ago would have been unthinkable, it has come at the cost of the room for debate. There has been society-wide internalisation of political opinion and thought, and the idea of discussing issues in order to reach a consensus has quickly become a thing of the past.
Politics today has become almost entirely binary. Every issue or event is taken away from its context and transposed as a question of ‘for’ or ‘against’. There is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ to everything on the public stage. So caught up are we in the narrative of our own lives, with social media casting us as the main characters in our own timelines, that we have become concerned with being on the ‘right’ side of each issue. Perhaps this has always been the case at some level, but things are quickly becoming more pronounced. We seek validation in expressing our views from those who are like-minded, and discussions have been replaced with sound-bites and pretty calligraphed Instagram charts justifying opinions without actually seeking to engage with issues on any deeper level than self-expression and characterisation.
We seem not to care about discussion, or facts, but rather opinion, and whose opinion fits with our publicly professed values in the digital sphere. Social media users have been subject to manipulation from outside forces, with targeted advertising and algorithms serving to reinforce potential biases and in many cases leaving us without the recourse of questioning opinions as they fit in the wider picture of the complex and nuanced issues that we face as a society. Our issues are becoming vaster, more far-reaching, more existential, more difficult to resolve. Our opinions are becoming smaller, more binary, more insular and less willing to answer to anybody who questions them.
So steeped are we now in this binary culture that facts themselves are being called into question and are often secondary to opinion. The deployment of ‘facts’ in an argument has come to be framed by the right as an example of left-wing brain-washing, and as always part of a wider conspiracy against those who find such ‘facts’ uncomfortable to deal with. Emily Maitlis opening Question Time asking a number of questions that still remained about Dominic Cummings’ 260-mile trip to Durham during a nationwide lockdown was immediately slammed by many as a breaching of impartiality rules, and as an example of a left-wing agenda in the mainstream media. Twitter censoring Donald Trump for inciting violence with the phrase ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts!’ has been seen an example of a wider conspiracy to silence conservative voices.
This is not a wider conspiracy. This is an attempt by those actors to reclaim the ‘Rules of the Game’ which are required at the very basis of a democracy in order for it to function. We must be able to agree as a society on the realities of issues if we are to have any chance of resolving them. There are those on both the left and the right who encourage social media users to distrust what they are being told by mainstream media outlets in order to further their own agendas. Of course, it is important to be wary of the provenance of many of the stories that have come to dominate the political sphere in the last few years.
What social media and the internet offer us, more than at any time in human history, is the opportunity to engage with information and facts surrounding issues at a deeper level. But how can we be expected to do this when we are told that beneath every seemingly simple and obvious fact is actually a sinister conspiracy that in some nebulous way is meant to deceive in order to further a darker and unsavoury agenda? The discourse over social media in the present period has become markedly aggressive and angry, and increasingly does not encourage discussion, but rather self-proclamation of subscription to a particular set of values, and a disowning of any facts or information that may undermine that.
How can we function as a democracy if this is the case? How can we fight injustice? How can we tackle global issues which affect all of us? How can we work to ensure that the future of our world and society is one in which everyone is given equity? The truth is, when facts cannot be agreed upon, and when every issue is weaponised to further conflicting agendas, no progress can be made.
What does it say about us as a society that Human Rights have now been cast as a weapon of the left? Why is it that our state-funded news channel is derided as being both too right and too left wing, at once constrained by facts and its own unwillingness to deploy them in reporting for fear of being labelled partisan or biased? What does it say that the President of the United States feels it a violation of his free speech that he might be held to account for inciting violence against his own citizens?
No one set of political values has the right to ‘own’ facts. Facts are something that everyone is entitled to. They are manipulated and weaponised at our peril. Everyone has the right to an opinion, but such opinions should not be regarded as fact. Information is at the very heart of our democracies and our freedom. Those that seek to diminish its importance seek to diminish the future of our society.
We must unlearn the behaviour of engaging with opinions as though they were facts and vice versa. We must learn to separate the building of our social media identities from issues which will require a united approach to overcome. We must take back control the rules of the game at the heart of our democracy.