Horsham District Council leader Ray Dawe: instant comment doesn’t give time for deeper thought

It sometimes seems that we live in an era of constant dissent. Almost every week we see people, from Egypt to Brazil and from Turkey to Spain, taking to the streets. In each case there is a different protest but it is generally youth inspired and a common factor appears to be the use of the mobile phone and social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter. For many younger people social media have become key to their daily activity and in the case of street protests we have seen that they act as a catalyst for bringing them together.

According to the New York Times, Turkey’s Prime Minister blamed Twitter for the recent protests in Istanbul. He is reported as saying: “Now we have a menace that is called Twitter. The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”

In Cairo over the past week, Twitter has provided people with the means of communication that makes it easy to share instant comments, bringing millions on to the streets in co-ordinated action, ultimately resulting in the overthrow of a democratically elected government.

In effect, countries and governments are facing a social media led change. The letter in the post or the phone call to a single person is increasingly displaced by the ability to communicate with hundreds of people at the push of a button.

Traditionally it took something really important to tip people from general consent with the way that they are being governed to going onto the streets in protest. In a further complication, we live today in a time of media hungry for ‘breaking news’ to fill newspaper columns and our radio and TV channels. These traditional media outlets also have a responsibility in an age when the ease of social media coupled with this insatiable demand for reporting ‘news’ can make a single message in a tweet highly important and exaggerate the amount of real content.

It takes a sophisticated society to know how to react and the social media message does not always work to good effect: The 2011 London riots may have started as a protest but soon evolved into mass lawlessness where the authorities struggled to cope, calling on newspapers and television to play a responsible part in calming down the situation. It certainly became immensely damaging both to property, running into millions of pounds, and to the fabric of our society too.

The very name ‘social media’ rather implies something benign and good for society and they certainly offer big advantages: one of our own councillors recently mentioned the huge advantages that her 71 year old mother now has with the ability to keep in contact with her friends and family spread across the world, connecting her visually with photos, comments, and instant messaging which is free worldwide.

Another big positive for the council is that it brings a new ability for us to hear from and connect to a younger audience who previously were a more difficult group to engage with – the council is working with Collyer’s on a YouTube clip a student recently produced extolling the virtues of living in Horsham so it can be adapted for the council’s website.

So there needs to be a way of harnessing social media for the best. While there are certainly many positives, Facebook and Twitter do not require traditional face-to-face communication skills or even a telephone call and thus the value of actually talking to someone in person and engaging in discussion runs the danger of being diminished.

While the smartphone or the iPad has become an enabling or uniting force for dissent or protest, instant comment doesn’t give time for deeper thought. Should its easy ability to give anonymity to the author of a message worry us? It allows comment to become safer for the originator and greater potential for the dissemination of extreme views. At a basic level social media provide easy, instant communication but they also enable people to substitute personal interaction with tagging people and notes and hitting ‘Like’ buttons. It can also allow the opinions of a single person or a small group, often espousing personal crusades, to become over important particularly when our news hungry world then picks up the story. Our traditional media can perhaps show us ways of navigating tweets and Facebook messages with some sort of proportionality.