Social media has revolutionised communication and interaction with friends and public figures. It has become the primary way in which many people read local and national news and engage with elected representatives. This opens politics up in an exciting way to people who have previously not chosen to be involved and whose voices would otherwise not be heard.
It can be likened to the Trade Union Movement which changed the making of public policy from something done by those in power who often had a wealthy background to a ‘power to the people’ situation where strength of feeling from the masses could be demonstrated.
Social media enables grass roots petitions to gather thousands of signatures, forcing parliamentary debate, it allows powerful poetry inspired by social injustice to ’go viral’ like Hollie McNish’s statement about breastfeeding, and it prevents the silencing of Iceland/Greenpeace’s Christmas ad which was banned from TV but has been watched by millions on YouTube.
However, it doesn’t come without a cost. We all know a ‘keyboard warrior’ or two, who are rude and abusive from the safety of their lounge in a way that they would never speak to anyone face to face. We also know personally how easy it is to share a meme or funny photo without thinking first of how embarrassed or ashamed the person who is the subject of that photo might be. For me, there are politicians who lend themselves so easily to that type of ‘share’ but I try to remember that it’s their policies that I want to critique and I don’t need to stoop to playground insults to highlight what I disagree with.
In fact, often the advice that I give to my children is the very same advice that I need to follow on social media: “don’t call people names”, “show respect even if you disagree with someone”, “think before you speak”, and, crucially, “would you like it if someone said that to you?”
As the councillor for Beeston, Holbeck and Cottingley Hall I want the opportunity to hear from all the people that I represent. I want to make sure that I represent everyone, not just those who think like me. In an attempt to do this I have been part of all the local groups that I am aware of and have been invited to join on social media. All three of the councillors for this area participate in regular online ‘surgeries’ on Facebook groups that are open to all residents – scheduling a regular time (every other Wednesday evening) when we will be available to answer questions from anyone on anything that matters to you.
Occasionally these tackle topics that are contentious, where feelings run high due to opposing interests eg landlord licensing – some residents want higher standards to be enforced to protect tenants living in appalling conditions, others fear that high costs will affect their income from their properties which is their livelihood. These different stances can be discussed with real depth of feeling but retain a respectful tone.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. When comments move from discussion of the topic and even our handling of it (which is of course fair game for discussion) and turn into simple abuse alongside untruthful statements about the work that we do, where we live and whether we care, the value of the discussion is nullified and nothing fruitful can be achieved. So much time, energy and emotion can be wasted in these places that can be much better used in engaging with other people or even, in my experience, the same people face-to-face. For this reason, there will now be discussion spaces that I opt out of but I will still be available online or in person to anyone in this ward.
Additionally, whilst I am fairly thick-skinned and am able to choose to keep working with people and for people despite the abuse, this is not a precedent that I am prepared to accept. Politicians, journalists and other public figures should always be open-minded but should not be silenced by bullying tactics. Online abuse of public figures, private individuals and groups or children is no better than face-to-face abuse and it is not the way that we should interact. If there is anything to be learnt from the ‘British Values’ that are being promoted in schools and elsewhere, it is that our best can be achieved when we behave with dignity and respect for each other, especially when we disagree.
This post was written by Cllr Andrew Scopes.