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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Politicians and the internet

The problem with the internet is that it can magnify mistakes and human frailties out of all proportion and bring the world crashing down on your head, sometimes in tragic circumstances.

Over at the Guardian Comment is free site, Caroline Criado-Perez examines this phenomenon and warns politicians in particular that they should not tamper with things they do not understand for fear of making matters worse. She says that it is not the internet that is the problem, it is the people using it:

There is a problem when politicians attempt to pronounce on the workings of the internet; too many of them don't or won't get it, probably through a mixture of generational and cultural disconnect. It is a foolish blind spot to cultivate, given that a tweet from the White House that combined a dog and Mean Girls got 23,426 retweets and universal approval just the other day – and how often does a politician manage that? Even the Ed Balls meme (if you're not on Twitter don't even try to understand this), initially laced with schadenfreude, has culminated with people who originally disliked Balls feeling almost affectionate towards him.

But when politicians get the internet wrong, the internet can be ruthless. Sarkozy posts a photo on Facebook claiming to have been at the fall of the Berlin Wall? Mary Macleod claims to have single-handedly ensured a victory for women on banknotes? No, the internet isn't having that – and so these politicians face the kind of swift justice only the internet can deliver: a ruthless lampooning via the medium of Photoshop. As Sarkozy was muscled into the moon landings, so Mary Macleod found herself celebrated as the architect of the Normandy landings, joining John Terry at the cup final and, in a particularly meta evolution of the mini-meme, taking credit for herself taking credit for banknotes.

Of course, there's nothing new about satire: it's as old as politics. But the internet is peculiarly adapted to deftly pricking pomposity. This is partly because nothing dies online, meaning your past indiscretions are never yesterday's news, wrapped round the proverbial fish and chips. They are always out there in the ether, just waiting for the moment you decide to claim you created the internet. (Not that that one was ever going to fly for Al Gore.)

Perhaps more significant however, is the internet's sheer speed. A piece of information can travel round the world in the time it takes to hit "post". When it comes to politicians trying to shape narratives to suit themselves, this speed is disruptive beyond Hogarth's wildest imaginings.

She concludes that too many politicians still don't understand the internet. They don't understand its power, and they don't understand its limitations:

No one would claim that the internet creates democracy, merely that it gives it a super-charged shot of adrenaline. So why think the internet creates misogyny, hatred or, indeed, the sort of toxic bullying we have read about this week? These are the hallmarks of humanity, and if we want to combat them, we need societal solutions. And the sooner politicians wake up to this fact, the sooner we can return to the original purpose of the internet: cat gifs and Sarkozy photoshopped on to the moon.

This is a lesson that David Cameron and those in all parties who have jumped on this particular bandwagon, need to take note of.
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