Anyone reading this who happens to have a Facebook account will be familiar with the fact that some members of one’s ‘friends’ list are prone to issuing an endless stream of posts on a daily basis that clog-up the newsfeed section of the medium; indeed, some are so relentless that it often requires several minutes of scrolling down before other posts can be sighted. In many cases, I’ve been forced to ‘un-follow’ a few FB friends in order that I can see what those who don’t post dozens of items a day are up to. For a small minority, it seems Facebook is an addiction they can’t refrain from. At one time, in my early FB days, I used to comment a lot because I wasn’t on any other social media forum; today, I tend to reserve it for posting links to my own work, whether from here or YouTube, though there is something of an unspoken conservatism on Facebook that confronts any challenge to the preconceived norm with silence and an absence of ‘likes’, so I am consciously selective.
A lot of my FB friends are what I suppose the Sun would refer to as ‘old-school lefties’, which is perfectly fine; there’s room for all of us online. I’m therefore exposed to an abundance of shots from the constant post-Brexit marches protesting against this or that, certain PC pieces characteristic of the worst humourless aspects of the left, links to Billy Bragg tweets or ‘I’m backing Jezza’-type declarations and so forth. It’s everyone’s right to post whatever the hell they like on their own Facebook wall, so even if I don’t agree wholeheartedly with every post of this nature, there are nevertheless valid critiques of Government policies re the homeless or welfare reform that I access and do indeed find myself agreeing with.
Depending how varied one’s FB friends list is, however, there can be an echo-chamber aspect to it that occasionally provokes the mischief-maker in me; the temptation to post something along the lines of ‘I think Theresa May is doing a really good job’ merely to shit-stir can be irresistible, though I tend not to bother. Life’s too short for a shower of vitriol and a mass ‘un-friending’ assault. However, the glut of celebratory posts when Margaret Thatcher died, for example – whilst demonstrating that socialist elephants never forget – invited anyone daring not to enter into the party spirit to risk becoming a social media pariah.
Not that, say, Twitter is any different; express an opinion that contradicts the consensus of the right (which appears to dominate Twitter) and the reaction is equally hostile. Anyone looking for a balanced middle-ground along the lines of the Independent at its print version best should generally avoid cyberspace.
The ‘anything goes’ partisan elements of social media have received a severe test today, though. Mark Sands, a 51-year-old anxiety-sufferer and prescribed anti-depressant user from Eastbourne, has been gaoled for four months for the crime of making alleged death threats against his local MP, Tory backbencher Caroline Ansell. Responding to Government cuts on disability benefits – a relevant complaint considering Mr Sands himself stood to lose out as a result – he posted the following on Facebook: ‘If you vote to take £30 off my money, I will personally come round to your house…and stab you to death.’
Mr Sands added to this outburst with such catchy slogans as ‘End poverty, kill a Tory now’ and ‘Kill your local MP.’ It’s not exactly a seditionist manifesto guaranteed to provoke a revolution, and to be honest it’s not really that different from some of the things I’ve seen on social media, particularly Facebook; but did it really warrant a prison sentence, let alone a trial in a court of law? Way back at the peak of his early 80s pop star status, Gary Numan once received a live bullet through the post. That’s what I’d regard as a pretty serious death-threat; but anti-Tory sentiments – even if admittedly crude ones – on Facebook?
Not everyone is gifted with an eloquent means of articulating their anger at a particular Government policy that either personally affects them or their social demographic, and many resort to basic insults to get their point across. Was Mark Sands’ outburst worse than your average ‘Evil Tory f**kers’ rant familiar to many on FB? Brighton Magistrates’ Court obviously believed so, as did the target of his ire, Caroline Ansell.
Not that Mr Sands was especially subtle in his anger; posting a photo of Jo Cox alongside the words ‘sawn-off 2.2’ won’t win you many recruits to your cause in the current climate. The police charged him with a crime they said was a ‘credible threat’, though whenever a policeman uses the word ‘credible’, I find it hard not to cynically add the suffix ‘…and true’ to it.
When Tony Blair was at the peak of his powers, social media was still effectively in its infancy, with the first visible backlash from those who had supported him in 1997 coming via the NME’s famous front cover recycling Johnny Rotten’s ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ quote around a year after the first New Labour Election victory. Had Facebook or Twitter existed back then, one imagines the level of fury on social media would have been comparable to what the current administration receives today.
Caroline Ansell may have been unnerved by what she perceived as a genuine threat to her life, but if she was well-versed enough in social media she would have known those who reserve their incandescence for Facebook tend to exhaust it on Facebook.
© The Editor