Before the election, hopes were high that the “first social media election” would dilute the impact of the partisan, right-wing press. I certainly thought that there’d be a ‘Twitter Effect”.
Hence the agonising on Twitter and Facebook as distraught and baffled lefties wondered how we could all have been fooled. Meanwhile, the spittle-flecked hacks at The Daily Beast cackled as they resumed the hacking of phones, and braying hoorays popped corks, and Savile Row-suited hedge fund bosses stepped out onto the terraces of their penthouses to survey the glinting towers of Moneyopolis, faint smiles playing about their lips.
I could write a story like that, for a non-existent, lefty version of The New Yorker, with stylish illustrations in the manner of George Grosz. Perhaps I may? But fantasy is of no help to us now.
Undeniably, the dead tree media still wield a lot of clout. On one level that tells us less about the power of the press, and more about the geography of power in our country. London-based newspapers have editors and commentators who go to school with, to parties with, go to the gym with, sleep with, marry, the business and political class. They are gatekeepers, mirrors, amplifiers of what power will allow. They set the agenda, rule on what opinions are legitimate, and pour bile over anything that threatens their interests.
But press power, though it can and does fight fiercely and dirtily, is still on the wane. We may have erred in thinking that the decline in circulations and the excesses revealed by Leveson might have altered the climate sufficiently this time for Labour to hang on to the prospect of government. Nevertheless, the truth is, the media ecosystem is changing. By 2020 it will have changed again, and we can play a part in this through the way we use social media.
Some have pointed out that we were fooled by the echo chamber effect of only talking to those with whom we agreed. That is probably true. In any case, venture out of the safe zone in which we stick with our own kind, and trolling will happen, and it’s a pretty lonely and dispiriting experience. But I am not convinced that the politics of social media is qualitatively different from the politics of social life. We have always tended to have political conversations with those with whom we agree, punctuated by the odd argument in the pub. So it continues.
We need to look at the election in the context of the last five years, if not longer. The press had backed David Miliband for leader. When they got Ed, the narrative of the fratricidal leader began, and never let up.
When Ed Miliband failed to bow his knee at the Court of King Rupert, the knives were sharpened further. And Labour’s modest proposals to curb the excesses of the rich and powerful were more than sufficient to ensure that their avowed enemies in the rest of the press would pound away at the Miliband image day after day.
In other words, the trashing of Labour in the 2015 campaign actually started in 2010. The trashing of Labour in 2020 has already begun.
But we know what they’re doing. Where once we might have walked past a news stand and groaned with despair at yet another distorted front page, swallowing our rage along with the bitter taste of our powerlessness, now things are different. Some wit will photoshop the thing, and within minutes it will be RT’d around the Twittersphere and posted in a million FB timelines. We haven’t any experience of what five years of such grassroots subversion might be. But we will have, in 2020.
Above all, we have to crowdsource effective narratives to counter those honed by the hired Sultans of Spin and their eager little helpers in the newsrooms.
The Sun won? Twitter failed? Not exactly. What happens next is up to us.