Source: Elly Walton
We are all aware of the benefits of social media for spreading news, discussing developments and promoting causes. It is believed by many to embody a free space for comment and debate – which may explain why more and more academics are coming to inhabit the virtual arena.
With the ability to reach out to the masses in an instant, Twitter and Facebook were the first ports of call for many in the UK when campaigning in the run-up to this month’s general election. Yet the Conservative victory that was apparently so surprising to the pollsters highlights only too clearly what can go wrong when the freedom of the social realm is restricted by its very own users.
I, for one, was convinced that I was going to wake up to a Labour landslide on the morning of 8 May – not because that’s what I had voted for but because my Facebook feed had been awash for weeks with anti-Tory protests and proclamations of superiority from my left-leaning, mainly academic friends.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind a bit of partisan banter from all parts of the political spectrum. I embrace diversity and am particularly appreciative that we live in a society where we can make a political choice. I also came into this election as a “floating voter”, not particularly enamoured by the offerings from any one political party. So my vote really was out there for the picking.
Yet, instead of managing to persuade me to put a cross in the box for the Left, the relentless, self-righteous and intolerant nature of the comments I saw from colleagues on my Facebook feed only drove me away from even considering joining their cause.
Of course, I want to see fairness, equality and justice prevail in any policies governing my country. But I didn’t appreciate seeing, time and time again, posts from my peers packed full of expletives implying that I was bigoted for even doubting the Labour or the Green economic approach.
And if the swearing and cursing wasn’t enough, add to this some convoluted language for dramatic effect. “Pusillanimous” and “myopically self-interested” are just two of the terms I saw used to characterise “typical” Tory voters – language that is just another way to enhance moral superiority over the supposedly “stupid” middle classes of England, setting a syntactical challenge that very few could be bothered to win.
I am not saying that the political Right is immune from petty name-calling and self-importance. However, looking at my social media accounts alone, I lost count of the number of times I saw the words “moron” and “scum” used in reference to Conservative or Lib Dem voters. I didn’t see anything of the sort emanating from the political centre or the Right.
There has been a lot of talk of late of “shy Tories” being responsible for the electoral outcome. Is it any wonder that people had to be shy about their voting intentions when any admission of Tory solidarity would have resulted in the social media version of public stoning?
I understand that emotions run high when it comes to politics. Yet there are no excuses for the mob culture that has developed in online academic circles, which is quashing the very freedoms of speech and thought that our industry depends on and ought to be defending. The belligerence of the Left’s intelligentsia in the social media sphere – at least in my circles – left no room for the balanced, honest debate which could have ultimately brought undecided voters into the fold.
The story of the Royal Holloway, University of London philosopher Rebecca Roache, who argued that being a Tory was as “objectionable as expressing racist, sexist or homophobic views”, is a case in point (“The Week in Higher Education”, News, 14 May). While she espoused her prejudices on an official university blog, the social media musings of many of my academic acquaintances show that she is not the only one to hold such discriminatory views. You could argue that social media profiles are private, personal spaces for discussions shared only with the friends you choose. Yet nowhere in the virtual sphere is truly private – and it is worth bearing this in mind when propagating opinions in a manner that may actually serve to turn others against the cause you’re trying to promote.
After my trip to the polling station on 7 May, I felt ashamed about the pangs of pride I had experienced for casting a vote to get revenge on the social media throngs that claimed to speak for me. Never before have I thought of a vote as an act of defiance against my own colleagues, but the increasing vulgarities I witnessed online made me embarrassed to be a part of what my sector had become – a militant, pedantic, free speech-quashing hate mob.
Things are yet to calm down. The “Tory-bashing” continues and my Facebook feed is now filling up with memes of David Cameron dressed as Hitler and endorsements of a sign stipulating that all shy Tories should identify themselves for added tax discriminations. As strong as anti-Tory sentiments may be, trivialising history in this way shows a lack of tolerance and respect from, quite frankly, people that ought to – and ironically claim to – know better.
Protestations abound that such aggression is needed to counteract the influence and “evils” of the mainstream British press. But as my sole source of news this election time, my social media feeds have revealed the Left’s intellectuals to be the biased ones.
I am not just another one of those “shy Tories”. I truly care about the sector’s values and the role that academics can play in ensuring balanced and fair debate. I really hope that my outspoken peers can learn from this election and face the prospect of the European Union referendum as we all should – facilitating discussions for the public good rather than shouting down those with even the slightest doubts or disagreements.
I deeply care about the UK’s future in the EU and shudder to think of my own hard work – listening to and working with Eurosceptic communities to show them the benefits of EU membership – being undermined by the brash, haughty attitudes that ultimately lost the Left my vote. When it comes to Europe, we cannot afford to force people into a position where the only chance they have to express their reservations is at the ballot box that could ultimately take the UK out of the EU.