New Media Matters

Recently the level of political debate has been criticised as being too negative, more about personality than policy. In the latest Reader’s Digest ‘Most Trusted Professions’ survey, politicians were ranked 49 in a list of 50 professions (only door-to-door salespeople were deemed less trustworthy).

People are walking away from political engagement. The media and the public want more honesty, more genuine debate and more direct contact with their representatives.

Social media is one way in which politicians can speak directly to their constituents and encourage debate. Yet sometimes when they make the effort to do this – to engage people in the battle of ideas – they are derided by a media intent on creating a headline.

Facebook is a very popular communication platform with over one billion users worldwide. It’s a quick, easy and effective means of getting in touch with a lot of people and sharing items of interest or information. It is also a two-way street. People can let you know in no uncertain terms what they think about any subject matter they want to.

It is a regrettable by-product of the relative anonymity of the internet that too often self-censorship isn’t practised in these online posts and the most vile filth and bad language is put into cyberspace for all to see. In the case of Facebook, there are organised campaigns to fill particular sites with hundreds (or thousands) of abusive and degrading messages.

Many of these ‘attacks’ are organised by the activist left against conservatives who have a different political or moral view than they do. I am quietly proud to be one of their regular targets. It reinforces my belief that I am on the right track and at one with the silent majority.

However, a problem arises in keeping up with the sheer volume of online interactions and screening them for inappropriate content. You see, Facebook allows filtering of messages based on key words. Thus preventing swear words from appearing on your site is relatively easy but regulating other inappropriate content is much more difficult. In some instances, such as when you are asleep, it is simply impractical.

This means that an orchestrated campaign of vitriol can appear very quickly and can take hours to ‘clean up’.

Most people familiar with the online space seem to get the fact that some things will slip through the net but I am finding that an increasing number of mainstream media journalists are selectively interpreting the free ranging nature of digital media to generate stories.

A few weeks ago, I posted a link to an interesting article on immigration by a descendant of an early Muslim Cameleer. Given the author’s cultural background, I thought his call for restricted immigration might be of interest to my Facebook followers. Literally overnight, hundreds of comments were posted by people discussing the pros and cons of the author’s views. Most were respectful but some were clearly inappropriate. The next morning, I was contacted by a journalist who had been referred to my Facebook page by a refugee activist suggesting I was a racist.

I politely explained that I wasn’t aware of the inappropriate content, that there was no ability to filter content other than by key words and it can only effectively be done in respect to swearing; all true and all perfectly understood by sensible people in the age of social media. I also explained how it was impossible to maintain a 24/7 vigil monitoring the site and that when my team become aware of inappropriate content it is removed as soon as possible.

Of course, such common sense didn’t stop the predictable story from appearing in the next edition of a national daily and the subsequent demands for me to be sacked, counselled or worse from the perpetually outraged.

For those familiar with how mainstream conservatives are treated by the media none of this is particularly remarkable. That is until I received an email letting me know that this entire event was a stunt, orchestrated by activists to ‘have a go’ at me through the media.

I highlight this to lament that this is what politics has now been reduced to in the age of social media. On one hand, politicians are encouraged to utilise social media to highlight and engage with their constituents about the battle of ideas, yet on the other they are attacked for daring to do so.

It is only reasonable that one should be held to account for one’s own words but making politicians responsible for the opinion or actions of others in the online world takes accountability to a different level entirely. One that simply cannot be sustained in the world of social media interactions.

Part of engaging people in political debate involves discussing different views – even if you don’t agree with them. If the media continues to attack those seeking to foster the battle of ideas, they will only have themselves to blame for the level of debate – or lack thereof – in this country.

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