Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

The Age of the Troll

Flame war (n): a lengthy exchange of angry or abusive messages between users of an online forum or other discussion area.

Troll (n): One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument

Iain Duncan Smith has done Remainers a huge favour with these remarks reported in the Express. It’s a favour because it enables articles like this one. IDS, we are to believe, is an idiot, a man fundamentally misinformed and so caught up in Europhobic zealotry that he is willing to tear up the constitution if it gets him what he wants, a man with no respect for the country’s traditions, a man who cannot be trusted. By implication, the whole Leave camp is similarly ignorant, similarly ill-informed, similarly driven by emotion rather than reason. We woz right all along: Brexit was a mistake, a deception, a moment of madness, and must be stopped.

And we are again a step further away from building consensus, from having a rational exchange of views and concerns, from healing the division in the country and pulling together the best of our nature and abilities to find a way forwards.

The picture that has emerged since the referendum is that Leave voters (and I’m sure the same is true of Remain, although I don’t know of any evidence) had much more nuanced, reasonable and well-informed opinions than the Leave campaign itself. People were motivated by very reasonable concerns and took time to inform themselves about the issue. The Leave campaign, for example, spoke of extra money for the NHS; this didn’t fool Remain voters – but it didn’t really fool Leave voters either.

Yet it isn’t the reasonable case for Leave, the case that had decent, rational, well-informed people across the country convinced, that Remainers heard. I’m pretty sure that the converse is also true; the appellation “Project Fear” doesn’t attach to my reasons for voting Remain, but might be an apt description of the way the Remain campaign was heard in the Leave camp. Instead, we heard a shifting chimera of misinformation and jingoism which hardly amounted to an argument, let alone one worth answering.

This latest spat over IDS is more of the same.

IDS could, of course, have kept his mouth shut. But equally, the Express had no particular journalistic duty to report his remarks. He isn’t a cabinet minister. He has no role in the Brexit process and presumably no particular influence in it. He is not an expert on the constitution nor, one would think, particularly influential as an MP. In short, it doesn’t really matter what he thinks in the great scheme of things.

So we must ask, why do the press keep pouring oil on the fire? If I wanted to play my hand here, I might argue that the right-wing interests behind the mainstream press have no interest in a reasoned conversation about Brexit lest the Leave camp come to their senses and change their minds. This would be unfair, however: I’m sure there are just as many cynical interests on the Remain side who are equally worried that, given a real conversation between real people, support for derailing the Brexit process would wane.

There is in fact a much simpler explanation: as one social media expert put it, angry people click. People buy papers that make them feel part of the drama. No-one wants to read tedious articles about the UK constitution. If IDS had said “Naturally we are frustrated by this delay but accept the lawful intervention of the court, in line with statute and legal precedent” it wouldn’t sell a single copy. In short, it is in the interests of the media to perpetuate the flame war, to reduce us to caricatures of our reasonable selves, and to have us hurl abuse rather than take one another seriously.

The public are caught in the middle of a flame war with media on all sides playing the trolls. Mainstream and independent media are, I think, equally complicit, but the real villains are people like you and me. Every click that’s preceded by a sigh and a “for goodness’ sake!” is another bone thrown to the trolls and another splash of oil on the fire.

This state of affairs is, I think, the natural product of a world in which there is more news media than we can possibly consume, but it serves powerful interests superbly well. Busy trading insults, we forget who the real villains are: rapacious businesses mistreating their employees, construction companies assuring that the housing ladder is missing the bottom few rungs, a banking sector that does little for the real economy, an incompetent government intent on dismantling social security and the welfare state, and a press controlled by too few people and too strapped for cash to do real journalism.

We have to find it in ourselves to rise above our simpler instincts. We must all be better men and women, and take pause before we bang our heads on the walls of our echo chambers. We shout at the press for being biased, for getting their facts wrong, for inflating and conflating the issues; but the truth is that we are the ones paying them to do so. There’s no harm in a little drama and no reason why one shouldn’t read things that confirm ones beliefs; but we have to stop shouting, and start listening, if we’re going to come together as a nation and find a way through the challenges ahead.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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