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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Oct-18 > How Twitter poisoned politics

How Twitter poisoned politics

Our democratic debate is descending into shrill, angry and tribal shouting matches. This is the strange story of how the decline and fall of political life has been fuelled by a website that started offas a platform for sharing gossip and cat photos
ILLUSTRATION BY JAMIE WIGNALL

At 3.12pm on 20th November 2014, Emily Thornberry hit tweet. The Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, then serving as Shadow Attorney General, posted a photograph of a house in Kent, decked with three flags bearing the St George’s Cross. Her caption? “Image from #Rochester.” At 6.15pm she tweeted again, apologising for “any offence caused by the three flag picture”, adding that “people should fly the England flag with pride!” By 10.30pm she had resigned from the front bench.

The political autopsy lasted days, focusing largely on the question of whether Thornberry had opened a window on to metropolitan Labour’s cultural alienation from—and perhaps even contempt for—working-class voters in small towns. But looking back, the significance of that episode is not as a snapshot of political turbulence, but as a development in the process that turns turbulence into news. What stands out is the medium, not the message. In autumn 2014, Twitter was already a recreational habit for Britain’s political class. But “Image from #Rochester” marked a watershed moment for the social media website. Without the super-accelerated online frenzy, there was no story.

Four years later, the Twitterstorm is not only routine, it is the qualifying benchmark for newsworthy controversy. Anyone who doesn’t squander hours every day on the platform might be baffled as to why its name occurs with such frequency in news bulletins. A majority of UK voters still do not have a Twitter account. Yet the site’s impact in Westminster and on the way politics works is real and exceptional, not because of how many people use it, but because of who they are—politicians, their devotees and the journalists supposed to be holding them to account.

what would grandad say? Nicholas Soames is a keen user of social media

Whether the controversy is Boris Johnson’s comments about the niqab, or Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism, Twitter is the place where anger congregates and provokes more anger in a near-perpetual cycle. And those are cases where the initial offence occurred in the analogue world. There are others that exist purely for Twitter. It is a laboratory capable of synthesising scandal of its own: Labour’s Dawn Butler denouncing Jamie Oliver’s “appropriation” of Jamaican jerk rice, or Tory Remainer Simon Hart using Twitter to tell a Brexiteer colleague, Chris Green, that “nobody gives a fuck” about his resignation. The sparks ignite partisan wildfires that rage intensely for a few hours or even days. They matter because they scorch a little more of the earth, charring the space where a more balanced and civil political debate might have been possible. Twitter has made the impulse to burn a normal part of political culture.

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In Prospect’s October issue: Rafael Behr argues that politics has been poisoned by Twitter—the platform often drives the political news agenda, encourages people to descend deeper and deeper into echo chambers and sees MPs and their families regularly abused. Meanwhile, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains how Oxford picks its students and says that more needs to be done for the colleges to be more inclusive. Also, Jasmin Mujanovic outlines how Bosnia’s elections this month could tip the country back into conflict. Elsewhere in the issue: Alex Dean highlights the alarming decline in the number of students studying a foreign language at GCSE and beyond. Will Self reviews a series of new books about liberalism, arguing that “we need more than just social freedoms and the free market.” Aimee Cliff charts the story of the dying dream that London would be a 24-hour city.