Steve Richards: Why Twitter distorts politics
The late and great political writer, Peter Jenkins, wrote that the columnist’s purpose was to make sense of the “torrent of information” potentially available to readers. Jenkins made the observation in 1970, long before rolling news, blogs and twitter. The torrent from 1970 has become an overwhelming avalanche now. There is a breathtaking range of information available every minute of the day and the way in which it is conveyed can be strangely distorting.
Take the case of Twitter and how it subtly distorts the current political situation. What is distinctive about the coalition is not the predicted internal tensions but the calmness. Whatever you think of the coalition’s policies the quiet business like stability of government is remarkable. On the whole ministers work well together. There are few rows. The New Labour era was much more volcanic when only one party ruled.
Yet Twitter, by its nature, cannot convey calm. Indeed if I was to tweet that the coalition’s most distinctive feature is its tranquility all hell would break loose. Others would respond by tweeting how much they the Tories and Lib Dems hate each other. More would tweet that the situation was not as volcanic under New Labour as I had claimed. Before long there would be a noisy row about the tranquility of the coalition. Twitter works brilliantly well when there is a dramatic fast moving story, but is less good at communicating the significance of slow moving ones.
Twitter’s capacity to create a sense of political turbulence even when there is none is also reflected in its broader impact on politics. Everything moves much faster. During Prime Minister’s Questions the leaders’ press representatives can be seen in the Commons’ Press Gallery monitoring Twitter, reading the instant verdicts of senior journalists. Cameron and Miliband know immediately after their exchanges whether or not they have been a hit or a flop. Their sense of triumph or failure shapes their political mood for days. I am not sure such speeded up politics is healthy on any level.
We must all learn how to master the likes of Twitter rather than let it master us. As a marketing tool Twitter is an unqualified gift, a means of reaching an effortlessly targeted audience quickly and for no cost. As a resource for linking to interesting material Twitter cannot be beaten. But as a guide to politics and the wider world we need to treat it with a degree of caution. We almost need guides to navigate a way through, not least when things get noisy. On Twitter it is noisy most of the time.