Friday 23 March 2018

Follow someone you disagree with ...

Last night Mr B and I went to an Intelligence Squared debate about Brexit. Stop Brexit! shouted the motion, supported by Gina Miller and Labour's Chuka Umunna. Arguing against, and in support of speeding ahead with Brexit, were Gerard Lyons, the economist and one-time advisor to Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, and Isabel Oakeshott, author of the David Cameron biography, Call me Dave, and the inside account of the Leave Campaign, The Bad Boys of Brexit.

Needless to say, playing in front of a London crowd, the pro-Brexit speakers had a pretty rough ride, and there were points in the proceedings where I felt that the issues were being unnecessarily and unpleasantly personalised. I don't want to argue the case for or against Brexit. I have views, but this is not a political blog. That said there's nothing quite like Brexit to raise the heckles, and Isabel Oakeshott's attempt to inject a little levity into her speech was probably misjudged given the strength of feeling in the room. Whilst she argued her articulately, and I'm sure she meant no disrespect to anyone in the room, anecdotes about how, back in June 2016, she almost named her new puppy Brexit didn't go down well.

In the course of proceedings (the totally wonderful) Nick Robinson who was chairing the debate asked us, the audience, whether we followed anyone on social media who disagreed with our own views on Brexit. It was amazing. Almost no one did.

At the risk of being accused of a stealth boast: I do very much buck that trend in that I have friends who are pro and others who are against. Perhaps it's because of my non-sectarian interest in knitting, which brings me into contact with loads of wonderful people up and down the country who are economically and culturally diverse. But I was very much the exception. Sitting there in the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster the evidence of multiple Facebook bubbles was irrefutable, and just a little bit frightening.

If there's one thing I've learnt it's that life is complicated, and rarely are issues like Brexit capable of being reduced to a black and white binary analysis of what's right and what's wrong. There are valid arguments for and against, and it's healthy for those points to be debated in a polite and open-minded way. But here's the rub: we can't be open-minded if we're only listening to one side of the argument. Somewhere, lost amongst the ranks of the twitter bots and the internet trolls, we appear to have lost a little of that good-mannered inclination to listen to the other guy's point of view.  And that's dangerous in the current climate where social media plays out on emotion rather than on a dispassionate analysis of the facts.

So, in the interests of independent thinking and bucking the trend, perhaps we should accept Nick Robinson's advice and make a point of following someone that we do NOT agree with. Perhaps we'll still hold the same position on the issues that matter to us, but at the very least we'll do so in the knowledge that we haven't been manipulated into that view by social media.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Not entirely on point, but in his incisive book WTF (also on the subject of Brexit) Robert Peston devotes a whole chapter (3) to the subject of how emotion plays out on social media. And this is what he has to say about playing to the emotions for click bait:

But social media as the empire of emotions and feelings is dangerous for journalism, and for democracy. I have spent my entire working life striving never to be a propagandist, to try to shine a bright light on power and let people make up their own minds about it. But if nobody cares unless I inject my own pain into my reporting of what is going on - well, that is a big problem, because if I faithfully followed the diktats of the new social media market, my journalism would necessarily become much more skewed and tendentious. 
I would look only for stories that make me cry or laugh, which would mean ignoring huge acres of the important news landscape.  ... I would abandon all my training to see both sides of a story and present the fairest picture. I would become more pamphleteer than journalist, but with the ability to insinuate myself into every home. This is not a notional risk. The ecosystem of digital media is driving journalism in this pernicious direction - because that is where the clicks and views are to be found, and the money can be made. 


  1. As a uni student, I am surrounded by Remainers and basically everyone I follow on social media is pro-Remain whilst I am pro-Brexit. It has been and still is very interesting to see what they post about the issue and how it is written (particularly since I am a Linguistics student).
    Another thing that I have found interesting is that whilst I only follow political parties and pages that I support, I can't think of an occasion that the various social media sites have recommended a pro-Brexit page to me; rather I notice that I get a lot of ads for pro-Remain pages.

    1. How interesting. I wonder if the bots have been confused by the difference in opinion between your friends and the political pages that you follow. I often get stalked on social media by ads for things I've just bought on-line - which always seems to be a waste of everyone's time, but demonstrates that these bots and algorithms are far from infallible.

    2. Very probably. Or they're trying their best to win me over!