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Don’t fall for Boris Johnson’s Twitter trap

Boris Johnson in a new video from the Conservatives. Photograph: Twitter. - Credit: Archant

The election is being fought online. And sometimes we can’t resist helping our opponents. Liz Gerard reports

Cuddly kittens have a lot to answer for. Their cuteness beguiles us, but their twitching whiskers and bogbrush tails are weapons of mass distraction in the paws of master manipulators. And we are their Manchurian candidates, brainwashed and programmed to ‘like’ and ‘share’. We cannot help ourselves.

But we must learn to. Because sharing pictures of a curled-up ball of fluff (they can control us in their sleep) is the Facebook cannabis that leads to Twitter heroin and a world of ruthless pushers of propaganda and fake news.

We are being played. We know it. We’ve read about Cambridge Analytica. We’ve watched Benedict Cumberbatch show us how it’s done. We know it contributed to the Brexit vote. We know that once the lie is out there, the truth hasn’t a hope of catching up. But still we unwittingly help to spread that lie, dressed up in a coat of righteous outrage. We’re hooked and it’s never been more vital to break the habit – or, rather, to rein it in.

The biggest hurdle for any addict is to acknowledge their problem: My name is Liz and I’m a Tweetaholic. So I sought counselling – in this case from data and media buffs. Some recommended a complete detox, but is that necessary or even wise? It’s more a case of learning moderation and discipline: We can still go into the pub, indeed, it’s important that we do. We should just avoid getting caught up in a brawl.

The key thing is to understand the basics. Every time we share a post that we disagree with or dispute – no matter how critical we are of the content – we are amplifying that message, boosting the profile of the author and reinforcing their importance and influence.

That is because every share or retweet racks up in the statistics driving the algorithms that decide which posts feed into timelines, which turn up in “recommended for you” notifications.

That’s why we find that once we’ve interacted with someone on social media, we see more of what they have to say. Which is all very well if it’s a friend sharing cat anecdotes, less so a rabid Faragist badmouthing migrants. And once our name is attached to such posts, our followers or friends will see more of them too. So by engaging, we are encouraging.

The first steps are obvious: Don’t feed the trolls – mute, block, move on. Don’t waste time on bots (provocative comments, no profile pic, handful of followers). Try to ignore controversialists like Katie Hopkins, Julia Hartley-Brewer or Brendan O’Neill, denying them the attention and megaphone they crave. If you simply must point out how awful they are being today, screengrab or quote, so that you at least deny them the beneficial stats retweeting confers. But do ask yourself whether your input adds any new information to the conversation: Most of your circle will already have reached the same conclusion about their latest soundbite.

The same applies to newspaper columnists: If they are indulging in a rant you disagree with, pick out the salient sentence and quote it or take a picture of the page, but don’t link to the article. Deny both the writer and the publisher the traffic that linking generates.

Of course the reverse is also the case: Share, share and share again clever tweets, positive messages, telling videos; link like billy-o to authoritative sources, press analyses and brilliant writing.

The bigger challenges come with ‘real’ politicians and their spinners: Boris Johnson is reported to have a 20-strong team expert in creating viral messages and we can see how ministers are under orders to keep pumping out stock phrases (cue Alan Freeman to announce that top of the charts for the 15th week is #GetBrexitDone).

They know that most of us get our news by scrolling through our phones, that we absorb memes and gifs but don’t click on links or read articles to the end.

It’s like that story about the 40 new hospitals: Everyone saw the big headline, but few reached the T&Cs small print bit about 34 of them getting just a bit of ‘seed money’.

Such disinformation can’t go unchallenged. We need to call out people who insist that black is white, even though they said it was grey last month. Especially the prime minister who, according to Guardian sketch writer John Crace, managed ten barefaced lies in five minutes when he fired the official election starting gun in Downing Street last week.

This is dangerous territory. Johnson’s lies are already ‘priced in’ by voters, many of whom seem to accept them as part of the package. But when you keep getting away with it, where’s the incentive to stop? Look at Donald Trump: People are so used to his fantasies that they just shrug them off – and he carries on. The Washington Post has been tracking his lies since taking office and he passed the 10,000 mark in April. Over here, some of our newspapers prefer to repeat rather than count Johnson’s falsehoods.

Broadcasters and others have cranked up fact-checking sites, but do voters know they are there and, if they do, do they care enough to use them? And anyway, any psychologist will tell you that you can’t beat emotion with data. That’s how Leave won in 2016. Crace’s antidote is humour. Always the best weapon, especially when combined with facts. But what can we ordinary folk do to counter the barrage?

Obviously retweeting Matt Hancock or Nigel Farage is bonkers, but how about replying? Will your clever thoughts reach their target or just your coterie? Sadly, probably the latter. So instead of tweeting the liar with your bon mot, tweet a higher-profile debunker. Share the expertise not the execrable.

Almost all social media interactions are with like-minded people. But neighbourhood and occupational WhatsApp and Facebook groups have a more diverse mix. There’s the opportunity: If someone in the group shares a video that you know to be a distortion, go back to an authoritative source such as Hansard and come back with the truth – ideally in a positive and witty way.

Resist giving opponents the oxygen of publicity, even when they are being crass. We know Jacob Rees-Mogg was an insensitive clod over Grenfell without hearing him over and over again or watching him with his LBC cans on.

We know that Andrew Bridgen was even more of an idiot to defend him, so let’s ignore him. My proudest moment as a recovering Tweetaholic this week came in not sharing the ludicrous video where the camera follows a stooped BJ lumbering through the corridors of power (wonder who he was trying to invoke there) and out into the sunlight to face ranks of photographers in Downing Street.

If you’re looking for a purposeful walk, Cillian Murphy as Peaky Blinder Thomas Shelby is a better watch. But Johnson does have comedy value and, even without my input, the video has been seen 1.3 million times.

There are exceptions, obviously: Material that has to be spread far and wide because if we don’t do it, the chances are it will stay under the mainstream radar. The doctored Keir Starmer video (1.1 million views) and Johnson demonstrating that he doesn’t understand his own Brexit deal in a pub-bore ramble to businessmen in Northern Ireland (3.6 million views) are recent examples.

These, and Kay Burley’s empty-chairing of James Cleverly, were all picked up by broadcasters after heavy social media sharing, but still somehow managed to evade the attention of the pro-Brexit press.

When Leave won the referendum, Sun editor Tony Gallagher famously texted to a Guardian journalist: “So much for the waning power of the print media”. Three years on, the landscape may have changed. Young people who neglected to vote in 2016 suffered a rude awakening that June 24. They mobilised in 2017 and are, with luck, even more engaged now. They don’t read newspapers; they use Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp, which the Express and Telegraph don’t understand. The press obsession with internet rivals focuses on Facebook and Google, missing the real electoral battlegrounds. The “luvvie” mockery may play to the Mail readership, but one post from Stormzy has far more impact than a front-page Dacresque rant. There is hope in this.

It’s all very well taking a Twitter detox; yes, we should probably all step away from the keyboard a bit more, but apathy is the propagandist’s friend. Social media has given us all a voice; let’s try to be wise in the way we use it.

Liz Gerard (sometimes) tweets, mostly about Brexit and the press, as @gameoldgirl

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