Of all humankind’s inventions since the wheel first turned full circle, Twitter is one of the most baffling. Who knew our species was in need of a vitriolic, free-for-all talking shop?
If necessity is the mother of invention, some mechanism for spreading peace on Earth or quelling hurricanes, cyclones and wildfires would be more useful than a virtual speakers’ corner for gasbags, self-aggrandisers, conspiracy theorists and idle hands with trigger-happy fingers. In the case of social media, Groucho Marx’s distaste for joining any club that would have him as a member grows more apt by the day.
In all the commentary generated by the BBC’s temporary banishment of Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker over his tweet criticising the UK government’s language about immigrants, the role Twitter played in the drama has passed under the radar, without as much as a cursory inspection. That the episode exposed a disquieting double standard in our tech age went unmentioned. The reality is that the BBC is willing to dice with the risk of its star presenters occasionally producing explosive tweets as the quid pro quo for their huge online following. Lineker has amassed 8.9 million followers on Twitter. That represents an irresistible captive audience for any employer.
Social media platforms have made all the world a stage and all the men and women potential leading players. By treading its boards, modern celebrities are hatched and ready to preen. Unable to compete with that reach, traditional media companies have hitched their wagons to the platforms’ runaway success. Some news outlets explicitly encourage their journalists to establish a presence on Twitter and its ilk, or whatever version is coming next around the virtual corner.
Many journalists and broadcasters need no encouragement to engage online. These days, being a prolific tweeter can trump an absence of proven ability on a CV. Editors desperate to combat dwindling circulation figures are impressed by reporters with big numbers of followers, even to the point of condoning their staff tweeting breaking news on their personal accounts before reporting it via their employers’ outlet.
This is the tech age’s version of the pact with the devil, and some stars who shine less brilliantly in the firmament than Lineker are getting burned. Last November the Scottish Herald dropped Iain Macwhirter, who had been a columnist with the paper for 20 years, over a racist tweet about the British cabinet. The year before, Channel 4 let Ant Middleton go as the presenter of SAS: Who Dares Wins, because the former soldier tweeted a derogatory remark about Black Lives Matter. That followed the dismissal of the BBC 5 Live radio host Danny Baker for a racist tweet about Meghan Markle’s baby.
In this country, Eoghan Harris lost his position as a Sunday Independent columnist in 2021 after it was revealed that he had been operating a fake Twitter account under the pseudonym of Barbara J Pym, which denigrated named individuals and accused some of being “Provos”.
Twitter can be beneficial, its users will argue. It allows experts in their fields to share their knowledge and, besides, it is often first with the news. True, but, more and more, it is the news and, besides, it has no filters.
No editors evaluate the merit of its content in advance. No subeditors check for accuracy before something is put into the public domain. No libel lawyers watch for defamatory utterances. Writing concisely is a skill. Yet millions of people are expected to write fairly, accurately and truthfully using a maximum of only 280 characters in a knee-jerk forum devoid of normal standards-checking and, sometimes, under the influence of stimulants. There is no allowance for “on second thoughts”. While tweets can be deleted, screenshots of them will endure. There can hardly be more fertile conditions for cultivating the Donald Trumps, anti-vaxxers, racist agitators, misogynists, fundamentalists, bigots, trolls and chemtrails theorists of our times.
Lineker is none of these. He is admirably articulate and thoughtful but he drew the BBC hierarchy’s ire when, under his own name and in his own time, he expressed his opinion. So much for the vaunted “democracy” of the online cacophony with its messianic “followers” and retweeting disciples.
One of the most bewildering Twitter controversies occurred at the end of last year when some journalists from the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN and elsewhere had their accounts suspended, reportedly because they had been tracking a jet owned by Musk, the platform’s proprietor. Understandably, many journalists and human rights advocates were appalled at this apparent act of censorship and they made their views known. Where? Why, on Twitter, of course. Supposing the targeted journalists had been barred from Rick’s bar in Casablanca, would their supporters have piled up there en masse, drunk the rum and chanted their disapproval? In contrast, those of Lineker’s colleagues who took a stance in solidarity with him chose to express their support more effectively by walking off the job, thus disabling the BBC’s sports service last weekend.
So intrinsic is Twitter to modern life that many of its users do not acknowledge the cause-and-effect of it. After his father’s home was besieged by news reporters last weekend and vicious slurs were spewed at him on social media, Gary Lineker’s son George continued to defend him. Where? That’s right – on Twitter. And, on Twitter, he was told he should be “burned at the stake” for standing up for his “sh**house” dad. This dependency on the platform is a sort of tech age Stockholm syndrome.
But it is the professional media’s feeding of the social media beast that is incomprehensible. Media companies say they have guidelines for their workers’ engagement with it but, when one of them tweets a sentiment that dissents from their employer’s script, they cry crocodile tears.
If the BBC and others can’t live with it, they should live without it.