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Let's Put The Dignity Back Into Politics On Social Media

22/12/2016 14:55 GMT | Updated 22/12/2016 14:55 GMT

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I'm a big fan of social media.

It allows you to share your opinion freely, openly and quickly. And regardless of who you are, where you are, and your background, you have just as much chance of gathering a following - and getting your views heard - as someone in a more privileged position.

But this online freedom comes with big drawbacks. In the hands of people with destructive motives, the ability to share immediately means that debates and discussions can quickly turn toxic. People can go on the attack, scare others out of the debate, and spread lies more easily than ever before.

Social media has become toxic

I experienced this first-hand recently when I wrote a column online about Uber and was attacked for taking a stand that reflects the views of, no doubt, many thousands of others. I was not advocating anything unusual or expounding any radical thinking - I was merely expressing a genuine opinion. I was not expecting my argument to go unopposed, but I was not quite ready for the torrent of personal abuse and attacks that I received.

What this reaction to my article taught me is that the veil of anonymity provided by social media means people feel they are free to get away with doing things that they wouldn't usually do in public. And as an old-school person who believes that you shouldn't say anything on Twitter that you wouldn't say to someone's face down the pub, I do find it all rather curious: people succumbing to attacking others rather than their arguments; getting highly aggressive, combative and angry - online, in cyberspace - why?

In the age of the Internet, is this possible to stop?

This abuse can descend all the way to death threats, something I was sadly on the receiving end of in real life when I was the owner of QPR football club.

But social media has taken this horrific phenomenon to a whole new level. I recently heard the story of a well-known MP who has retreated almost entirely from social media because of misogynistic abuse and threats that she received online. The flurry of abuse has effectively 'frozen' her out of the debate; removed her ability to play a part in the discussion, and this is not something that we should tolerate in a democracy.

The Internet, and especially social media, is not something that can be easily regulated. Social media websites, such as Twitter, have themselves taken steps to alleviate some of the trolling and abuse. But just as quickly as one account is closed down, another one is opened up. It is like playing an endless game of whack-a-mole, and no government can legislate effectively for this when a website or its users can just as quickly move jurisdictions or set up under a new pseudonym.

Social media and fake news

But anyone who has followed the news recently knows that social media has not only become an arena for toxic and negative attacks, but that it has also become a channel for the swift and disruptive transmission of fake news and speculation.

Whereas people used to consume their news from papers who had Editors with a professional regard for the truth of the news they were reporting, the web has created publications which knowingly peddle fake and often preposterous stories, which can then be distributed to a wide audience on social media. Never has Winston Churchill's claim that "a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes" been so true.

I believe this had a very destructive effect on both the Brexit campaign and US Presidential Election. Lies were peddled online to discredit one side or the other, and purposefully spread through social media. These elections became about which side had the better digital bazookas to shoot out more toxic and destructive lies, rather than the issues themselves.

Most worryingly, social media is now playing a role in 'priming' the public for these lies when made in the traditional press or in other real-time contexts. These social media lies meant, for example, that fewer questions were asked when the Brexit campaign plastered their bus with the infamous £350m figure. The public had already heard and read the figures on Twitter - and, in fact, that figure might have been shared by their family and friends - so it seemed entirely sensible to see it on the side of a bus.

The newspapers are now trying to be as extreme as social media

Finally, the extreme views peddled online have forced many papers, largely the right-wing press such as The Daily Mail, to adopt the same behaviour. Of course it makes business sense for them. The newspapers are now competing for eyeballs with the zany and gossip-ridden social media platforms, and the only way for them to succeed is to adopt the same style and approach.

This has prompted a widespread race to the bottom, as websites, social media accounts, traditional newspapers, magazines, and TV news stations compete to say the wildest and most outlandish things. It has destablised the political debate, and means that it is harder than ever for citizens to find fair and balanced information about the world to keep themselves informed. It feels, at times, like we're living in a pantomime, where those people with the most extreme views are rewarded with jobs as columnists, disk jockeys, TV commentators, and even political leaders.

Overall, as someone who has worked in the media and owned radio stations like LBC, I'm incredibly worried about the situation we find ourselves in. We may not be able to regulate social media - but at least we can retain our dignity in the traditional print, radio, and TV press. So please, can we have some of the dignity back right now?