Twitter is on fire and journalists should try not to fan the flames

Twitter has become the sea that journalists swim in. And this week it feels like it has become so polluted that it is difficult to take more than the briefest dip without risking one’s health.

The same is true of Facebook, where the Hull Daily Mail had to remove all the #BlackLivesMatter-related stories from its page because moderating unsavoury comments had become a full-time job.

As a parent of two primary-school age children I know only too well how three months of lockdown can lead to eruptions of tearful rage. And it feels like the pent up frustration of large parts of the populace is now being vented in the public squares of the internet (and our real-world civic spaces too).

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Social media companies who are happy to take profits without taking responsibility for the content that advertising appears next to are part of the problem.

But so, I fear, are some newspaper columnists who are injecting more rage into a situation that now needs calm heads, understanding and a longer-term view. The sort of attributes, in short, which distinguish professional journalism from the knee-jerk provocateurs of the ‘Twittersphere’.

Journalists, whether writing for online or print, are in a fight for readers’ attention – and outrage is one way of grabbing it. I can admit that I’ve been guilty at times of stirring myself up into a lather of invective to inject some punch into my next blog post.

And it’s easy to get sucked into spats on Twitter which quickly escalate into fairly personal abuse. Deprived of real world social interaction for so long it feels like we have almost forgotten how to hold a civilised conversation.

My hunch is that the professional news media will do better in the long term if we can replace intemperate hot-takes on the issue of the day with a more understanding , thoughtful and tolerant approach.

I think it is possible to be interesting without being angry.

To quote Jesus (or Rishi Sunak, I can’t remember which): “Now more than at any time in our history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion. When this is over, and it will be over, we want to look back on this moment and remember the many small acts of kindness, done by us and to us.”

It feels to me like the Twittersphere is on fire and later this summer our cities could be too (if government adviser Professor Clifford Stott is to be believed).

Journalists should be pouring water on the flames – not fanning them.

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