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David Baddiel: ‘Social media is a gift to people like Farage’

David Baddiel on stage in London - Credit: Empics Entertainment

When stand-up, fantasy football fanatic and novelist David Baddiel first became famous hecklers were in the audience. Now, talking to NATHANIEL TAPLEY, he explains how trolls have become a new, nastier version of the loud-mouth in the crowd

One of the things I remember best about being young during the 1990s was our attempts to fashion tribalism out of anything that came to hand.

We weren’t having big political arguments: the Major government was wheezing its way through the decade, everyone just seemed to be biding their time.

We were, instead, manufacturing (or allowing people who wanted to sell us thing to manufacture) a sense of belonging and adversity out of, essentially, nothing. You could be Blur or Oasis, NME or Melody Maker, Select or Q, Tazos or Pogs.

Looking back, it’s difficult to know if it was just an innate compulsion of young people to belong to something, or if there really was so little to worry about in the world that we were reduced to arguing about who had the best trainers. As if Francis Fukuyama wrote an chapter at the end of The End Of History called ‘Also, The SNES Is Way Better Than The Megadrive’.

Now, of course, everything is a constant fight on social media. Remember when Twitter was just people talking about what they had for breakfast? Anyone trying that now would be met with howls of despair from the Anti-Breakfast League, seventeen memes of bowls of water with ‘LIBRUL TEARS FOR BREAKFAST’ from frog avatars, someone asking why you don’t seem to care what refugees had for breakfast, a torrent of people offering vegan breakfast options and a short flame war with Arron Banks.

Who better to talk to about all of this than one of the sources of the greatest 1990s tribal division of them all: Newman or Baddiel?

David Baddiel knows what the sharp end of Twitter is like, and, yet, through it all, seems to remain humane, thoughtful and interested in the world. So I had a chat with him about his new show, social media, and how to deal with trolls.

What role does social media play in your new show?

The show I’m about to take on tour – My Family: Not The Sitcom – is quite personal, but it begins with jokes about Twitter. I start by showing some of the mad, outraged responses I’ve had on Twitter in the past, and how comical and hilarious they are, because they’re angry. The purpose of it is, first, to introduce the subject of my family, but also to show that you can be very personal, and people will still find ways to become outraged, because we live in a culture of outrage.

That’s because social media has given everyone a little flag of self. Everyone has their own flag of self to raise and pump full of wind. Anger turns up the volume on that, and so when everyone is flying personal flags that leads to a culture of outrage.

But this is where I give the audience a quandary, by mocking a culture of outrage at the outset, before I go on to discuss very personal issues like dementia and infidelity, and make jokes that they might find uncomfortable, it’s hard for them to become outraged in response. They’ve been outflanked by the ridiculousness of outrage from the beginning.

When you went back to stand-up having taken a break, did you find that it had changed?

I found that I had changed. I hadn’t done stand-up for 10 years and I hadn’t written a stand-up show but I really wanted to do something age-appropriate about – and this is a terrible word – fame. What is it like when out there, there is a version of you that isn’t you? I wanted to talk about how that leads to a strange separation of self.

To construct that show, I worked in a new way. I didn’t start by telling a joke and working out a way to crowbar in another. I started with an argument. That way it didn’t matter if the audience wasn’t laughing for a bit, I was saying something I wanted to say, and I found that really worked. I was asked to do a talk, and I found that between thinking about fame and my family, I’d found a new way for me to do stand-up.

Social media wasn’t as prevalent when you were doing stand-up before. Does Twitter fill you with hope or despair?

There’s something very specific to online culture, the trope: Do Not Feed The Trolls. And I’ve always felt: no. That wouldn’t do. And I felt that for two reasons.

The first is that it’s my job to tell jokes and to deal with abuse, and an online troll is, essentially, a heckler. Putting them down is part of what I do and I enjoy it. It is exactly the function of ridicule to make fun of these people and it’s enjoyable for the audience.

You will come across some people who are extremely racist, and the things they say are really problematic, but you can deal with them by dragging their opinions into the light. When you are dragging them into the light, ridicule is your best weapon.

The problem with trolls is that they take themselves too seriously. They’re giving free rein to their psychological inadequacies to make themselves feel grander. It’s the same inadequacy that fuels conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories give idiots the chance to feel like intellectuals because they use the language of academia.

The other reason to do it, of course, is because not responding also doesn’t work.

Does that then make it performative or argumentative? Are you trying to entertain the audience or change the troll’s mind?

I think it’s definitely performative. You’re not going to change a person like that’s mind. You can’t hope to change their mind, they’re too locked in to seeking comfort from confirmation bias. Making fun of them is the best you can do.

However, there may be a social purpose. When people are laughing, some of them might have been flirting with similar ideas, and might be shown just how ridiculous they are. So while the target of the ridicule might not change their minds, those laughing at him might.

Do you think that Twitter, by its nature, changes the way we conduct arguments?

Nuance has been a huge casualty of Twitter. Truth is difficult and complicated and in-between, and people don’t want to think like that. It’s not easy to get that into 140 characters. It’s much easier just to feel. It’s much more comfortable to know: this is what I believe, here is my team and my side, and just cheer along.

When he was describing the world’s greatest video games, Charlie Brooker put Twitter at the top. It’s a game played by staring at a screen, that’s won by making arguments, and where the score is kept with the number of followers at the side.

But that, then, turns argument into a sport, and a spectator sport, and nuance is a casualty. Truth is not the same thing as winning.

Piers Morgan recently had a go at me about Brexit, saying I was wrong because I was on the losing side. But that’s a category error. That’s not how arguments work. The side that’s right, the side that contains the truth, isn’t always the side that wins, and that’s happening more and more.

But isn’t it a corollary of a concept of a free market of ideas that in such a market better ideas will, eventually win out?

Well, only if you’ve got a very Adam Smith-style approach to the way a free market of ideas would work.

And the reverse is that ideas should be censored, and I’m a great believer in free speech. It is tempting to think that whatever is closest to the truth will win, but there are a lot of people on Twitter. And the problem with lots of people is that, in large groups, they will gravitate towards simplicity. And simplicity is fine, but it’s not always the truth.

If comedy is transgressive, and social media reinforces conformity, does a culture of social media make comedy more difficult?

I think you learn to use the form. I enjoy the form, but you can see the downsides when you get retweeted by someone with a lot of followers and you’re suddenly exposed to a lot of people who aren’t necessarily your audience. Most people on Twitter are not my audience. They don’t understand me, although they all have an image of me, and they will come at me in herds. In herds of inane put-downs.

A couple of weeks ago I had a go at The Times – which, by the way is one of the newspapers I get. They’ll take pictures of women and append them to any story. In this case, it was a story about the Ashes, and they’d attached a picture of two women in a jacuzzi, and I couldn’t see the connection.

My tweet was retweeted by Piers Morgan, and then people like Tommy Robinson popped up in my timeline, who don’t understand me, and wanted to accuse me of virtue signalling.

It’s very easy for that to get out of hand, and I can be perfectly happy to get sucked into it. During that episode my wife had to ask me to get off my phone, because I have a reflex need to respond to these people.

When you get exposed to those audiences of people who don’t understand you is it like starting out again in stand–up, when audiences didn’t know who you were and you had to prove yourself each time?

It’s worse, in a way, because when you’re starting out in stand-up, no one knows who you are, but no one has any preconceptions of you. British audiences can be hard and aggressive, but you’ll have a chance to establish who you are.

Whereas if one of Piers Morgan’s followers sees a tweet from me, they have some idea of who I am. I’m that twat they might have seen on the telly, and worse than not knowing me, they do know a cartoon version of me. He – and it always is a he – thinks they know me already.

Does this affect the ways we interact offline?

I’m not sure. I was, at one point, getting very racist and anti-semitic abuse from 4chan. These 4chan man-virgins all had the same avatar, and all started sending me graphics of eyes, like: we’re watching you. And it was creepy, and a lot of my followers got creeped out on my behalf, but it isn’t physical.

It’s easier because it isn’t physical, an online tussle with Guido Fawkes and some 4chan fascists. One of them said he knew where I lived, which feels like physical stalking, and it’s meant to feel like it, but it isn’t. You have to remember that you live in the real world.

Can it change the way we vote?

It’s pretty obvious that social media led to Trump. Social media is very good at two things: simplifying things and mobilising, which is why it was so important to Trump. It works both ways, a year ago Corbyn could say there would be a rally, and could very quickly mobilise 10,000 people to turn up.

It rewards the more extreme, the more attention-getting, so what before wouldn’t have been acceptable is brought into the spectrum of opinion. With regards to Brexit, this was a gift for Nigel Farage, because Europe is one of the most boring things in the world: it’s about trade and regulations and tariffs and legislation. It’s dull. But Nigel Farage made it an emotional issue, one about identity and anger. Protracted, detailed negotiations don’t work well on Twitter, but everything we say or do on social media is about identity, and the identity we want to project. So, the key to the Brexit vote was making it about identity.

Finally, having brought him to prominence as a presenter on A Stab in the Dark (Baddiel fronted the topical Channel 4 show in the early 1990s with Gove as co-host), do you feel responsible for Michael Gove?

Look, we tried our best to make A Stab In The Dark a success, but we failed. We tried to make him into a TV star, and his subsequent trajectory may be down to our failure to do that. However, on that show I always found him intensely polite and intensely intelligent, so I don’t think the failure is really ours.

And, feeling like I’d rather blotted my copy book with a silly question about a silly man, I left him to get back to fighting the good fight on Twitter, to putting down hecklers and refusing to be bowed by torrents of inanity, with the words ‘intensely polite and intensely intelligent’ ringing in my ears.

Nathaniel Tapley is an award-winning comedy writer-performer, who has worked on Have I Got News For You, The Revolution Will Be Televised, The News Quiz, Tonightly, Gigglebiz and Dick & Dom

David Baddiel’s Olivier Award-nominated stand-up show My Family: Not the Sitcom begins a UK tour from January 28. For full details

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