Social media and the declining standard of debate

Social media bears a heavy responsibility for degenerating standards of debate, argues Colin Randall

British foreign minister Boris Johnson has a formidable record of resorting to insulting jibes.

 Glyn Kirk / AFP
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As Britain lurches shakily towards the European Union exit door, the country’s most senior diplomatic figure, the foreign minister Boris Johnson, has once again been caught using decidedly undiplomatic language.

London’s former mayor has a formidable record of resorting to insulting jibes.

In a 2007 newspaper article, he described Hillary Clinton as having “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”.

Last year, he won a £1,000 (Dh4,610) poetry prize for a bawdy limerick poking fun at the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

And now, after warnings that Britain faces a heavy price for EU withdrawal, he accuses the French president Francois Hollande of wanting to “administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape, in the manner of some World War Two movie”.

The British prime minister Theresa May believes the shocked response, in which Mr Johnson’s comment was called “crass” and “abhorrent”, has been exaggerated. It was no more than a “theatrical comparison” and no one was really being likened to a Nazi, Mrs May’s spokeswoman claims implausibly.

Mr Hollande, who for all his failings bears not the slightest resemblance to a Nazi guard, may feel himself to be in both good and bad company.

As one of Barack Obama’s admirers, he may have been aghast when Mr Johnson asked whether removing a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House “was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president's ancestral dislike of the British Empire”.

But perhaps Mr Hollande allowed himself a smile at Mr Johnson’s barbed riposte to Donald Trump’s idea – a wretched one, but one he has acted upon since taking office – of stopping Muslims entering the United States. Mr Trump spoke in 2015 of needing to avoid the supposed fate of London and Paris, where police were “afraid for their lives” in Muslim-dominated no-go districts.

“The only reason I wouldn't visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump,” Mr Johnson retorted. He also recalled being mistaken for Mr Trump in a New York street as “one of the worst moments”.

For many public figures, especially those such as Mr Johnson who have worked in the media, recourse to hyperbole and sarcasm comes naturally.

They fail to see the offence that may be caused and are prepared to tough it out, or plead light-hearted intent, if criticised.

Social media, with unfettered opportunities for instant put-downs, undoubtedly bears a heavy responsibility for degenerating standards of debate.

Mr Trump is a past master of shoot-from-the-hip tweeting. He needs no lessons from a clever if occasionally clownish British politician; worse, his presidency began in ugly fashion amid suspicions of fake news generated by him or allies, intemperate attacks on the media and the phenomenon of “alternative facts”.

This unfortunate phrase was uttered by Mr Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, when grasping for a distinction between outright lie and counter-assertion.

As 2017 opens with the certainty of polls – in France, Germany, the Netherlands and beyond – as bitter as Brexit and the US presidential contest, the outlook for dignified political exchanges is unpromising.

But at least arguments about news manipulation have had one positive effect.

From CNN we learn that the furore over alleged untruths emanating from the Trump camp has helped inspire a new surge in sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nearly 70 years have passed since George Orwell’s bleak satire first portrayed a totalitarian society in which the ministries of truth, peace, plenty and love deal respectively with peddling lies, running wars, ensuring perpetual poverty and torturing dissidents.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National