THE BLOG

A Win For Social Media

12/05/2017 12:11 BST | Updated 12/05/2017 12:11 BST
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This week Facebook was accused by BBC Panorama of influencing the Brexit vote and the US Presidential election. There are new warnings of Instagram posts which encourage children to self-harm. Yet at the Cambridge Union last night a motion regretting the rise of social media as the primary means of news distribution was decisively defeated.

I am honoured to have been on the winning team, alongside Sarah Baxter of the Sunday Times and Paul Stokes of the satirical website The Daily Mash.

Despite a lifelong career at that epitome of the Mainstream Media, the BBC, I believe that social media is now an important part of our democracy. It allows more people than ever before to access and to engage with news, information and comment. It gives them a new tool to challenge those in authority and to expose wrongdoing or corruption. In the internet age, it is simply pointless to argue that things were so much better when there were fewer sources of news.

Here's a quote for you: "The world is overwhelmed with data that is confusing and harmful." Well that was the Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner - speaking in the 16th Century - and he was talking about the Printing Press.

Let's take another warning, on how the media "could be abused by demagogues, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance". Well that was Senator John F Kennedy in 1959 speaking about television news.

Of course, fake news is not new either: "Freddie Starr ate my hamster" is one of the most famous headlines of the newspaper era. It was in the Sun in 1986 and it was completely untrue. Starr's publicist at the time, a certain Max Clifford, allowed it to run because he thought it was all good publicity for the comedian's tour. Of course, that was the least of Mr Clifford's crimes.

Let's take a more serious example, the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 in which 96 football fans died. Another famous Sun headline was entitled "The Truth". It claimed that Liverpool fans were drunk, picked the pockets of victims, punched police officers and urinated on the injured and dying. It took 26 years for the real truth to emerge, that the fans were utterly blameless, those who died were unlawfully killed and the police commander in charge was responsible for manslaughter by gross negligence.

If such a disaster were to occur today - and of course we all pray it could not happen -- thousands of fans would be armed with mobile phones, images would circulate on social media within minutes. It would be impossible to sustain the sort of fake news which blackened the names of so many for so long.

Look at what happened on United Airlines when its security staff dragged a man screaming from a plane which was overbooked. The video spread rapidly on social media. The behaviour of United airlines was exposed and the company has been forced to change its policy on overbooking.

Some of the first - and most powerful - images of the recent chemical attack in Syria emerged on social media. It is a vital means of communication for oppressed citizens living under repressive regimes. Why else would North Korea try to ban Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as it did last month? It was clearly a desperate attempt to stifle any word of criticism of its tyrannical rule.

Regulations and laws in this country may not have kept pace with the rise of social media. But internet companies can be required to remove extremist or abusive material and there is certainly public pressure for them to do more.

Organisations like the BBC were initially slow to realise the significance of social media. But it is now a vital part of the BBC's news-gathering, transforming the way it covers stories.

The BBC has a unit dedicated to UGC - User Generated Content. When big stories occur, it is often the eye witnesses on the ground who have the best pictures, who can provide accounts of what they saw or heard. This does not change the need for good journalism. Accounts and pictures still need to be verified, but it does enable broadcasters to get closer to the story more quickly.

Social websites give so many more people an inside track on politics. Twitter provides an invaluable insight into the political mood, as MPs tweet their views on anything and everything. Often it is also the first indication of a growing row or gaffe.

The internet also gives a platform to views and voices which are not reflected on the mainstream media. Much has been written about the alt-right sites such as Breitbart which did so much to mobilise support from Donald Trump. But there is a new breed of alt-left websites too. The Canary and Another Angry voice are reaching millions of readers a week and challenging the conventional coverage of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

Surely in our modern democracy it is right to have space for a real diversity of views? People are no longer content to rely on the filter of the big broadcasters and newspapers ...and who are we to restrict the information and opinions that they read?

There is a spreadsheet circulating which allows voters to find out whom they should vote for it they want to stop the Tories. You may or may not think that is a good thing. But surely voters should have accurate information on how to vote tactically if that is what they want to do?

And its all so much more imaginative and fun. My son who is studying politics at University regularly sends me the latest political memes. They can be brutal and subversive but they do prick the sometimes impenetrable world of soundbites and slogans.

So lets not wallow in lazy rose-tinted nostalgia about how much better it was when a small group of old editors and well-paid executives controlled the news that we consume. Let's challenge the bigoted and the scaremongers pedalling fake news. And let's make the most of social media to engage in the rich seam of ideas from people beyond the reach of the mainstream media.