For centuries, newspaper owners and editors have been able to craft public opinion with just a massive headline font and a terrible pun, their authority left undoubted. But in the glorious blinding dawn of social media, when official Facebook Pages of news organisations post their articles, we now have the almighty power of the C word: comments.
Regular folk like ye and me rely on the press to honestly critique the government as a representative of the people, so there needs to be a healthy distance between the two. But, shock horror, there ain’t. Lord Leveson discovered politicians and certain sections of the press like to chill together on the regular sans civil servant, and this mischief is no thing of the past. Before the election, Theresa May met with Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, two leading roles in the soon-to-begin Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry which investigates press criminality. May then announced in her manifesto that she’s mysteriously axing Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry, and The Sun and the Daily Mail print pro-May headlines during the election campaign (with precious little to work with). Serendipitous, huh. It makes perfect sense though – it’s hard to imagine anyone printing a pro-May front page without being begrudgingly obligated to do so.
So if these papers can publish whatever the frick they want regardless of accuracy simply because of a hush hush deal with a politician, then what can we use as a bullsh*t-o-metre? Cue social media. Posts by the official Facebook Pages of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph are now underscored by the sonorous rumbling of public comments, audaciously back-chatting to the big daddies of the news. This new digital arena for public debate is teeming with plucky jibes at the most influential news organisations the UK has to offer. The first crack in their supremacy appears.
Of course, just writing some naughty swears in caps lock on a Sunday Times status isn’t all that impressive. Anyone brandishing a keyboard can also fail to actually read or understand an article before writing a breathtakingly lazy and ignorant comment, and this happens most of the time (I’m trying to cut back, promise). But I reckon there are a few factors at play in the comments section that might enable more effective People Power in the future.
1. Popularity Contests
Only the comments with the most likes appear at the top of the comments section, so just by scanning the first five, I can pencil-sketch an idea of what the rest of the public thinks about that particular news event. I’d argue this has three advantages. Firstly, the comments consisting of incoherent garbled prattle from the garden blockheads of the world will probably be left unliked and lonesome at the bottom of the comments trail, so no-one will read them. Secondly, if I see that a comment I profoundly disagree with (or that looks to me like incoherent garbled prattle) is racking up hundreds of likes, then this perspective might actually be a broader social consensus, and instead of writing them all off, I might have to work on a persuasive and engaging counterpoint to win them over. I should see their comment as a set of instructions about where the opposition’s grievances are, and address those grievances when trying to persuade them otherwise. Thirdly, I can briefly escape from my echo chamber of carefully curated friends who happen to agree with me, and get a sense of what other people’s points of view are. In turn, this might challenge me to think about the issue from a different perspective and heck, maybe even change my mind.
2. Put That In Your Pipe and Discuss It
News organisations’ singular interpretation of the facts now acts as just an ice-breaker for an open discussion of a multitude of different perspectives, winnable by anyone with a convincing enough counterargument. If the Sun publishes a strongly biased report of the Prime Minister’s performance in the Commons that eclipses the facts, the hive mind can call them out with a more honest account from a reputable source. If the Telegraph writes a headline misrepresenting a quote from a politician, people can comment the full unedited quote underneath, preferably with a link to the original interview video. Suddenly the angle the editor chose on a news event is just one of many.
3. Accountability Squared
An extra dimension of expressing a political opinion through Facebook comments is that it suddenly makes me accountable for my own opinions too. I know my comment could be seen by hundreds (if not thousands) of people that might disagree with me, so I might hesitate before I thwack the Enter key on my knee-jerk quip. Also, by virtue of it being a written rather than spoken form, this allows me to reflect on my opinion and edit it before posting. It might well be that this naïvely idealistic moment of self-aware reflection rarely happens in reality, but the possibility for it remains. Compare this to my old school method of expressing my opinion, which was shouting vague platitudes over an overbearingly loud Vengaboys song in a Wetherspoons at friends who don’t challenge me for details because we’re four double gins down and I can’t pronounce the word “referendum” anymore. The potential of the comments section is definitely more socially powerful, and almost certainly less trashy.
Leaving comments under an article as a means to challenging the authority of a biased news report is far from perfect. To reach maximum potential, it requires thorough research, references to reputable and (crucially) neutral sources as supporting evidence, and an affable and respectful tone that resists point-scoring. While it might be a smidge optimistic to expect this standard in every comment, the potential not only exists but is also realised, albeit very occasionally. At least we now have a method of publicly challenging new information without just passively nodding along to whatever some money-making newspaper editor has spun the story to be. The balance of power is tipping, and the landscape of possibilities of what can be achieved with our new weapon is just taking shape. If I could just… resist… lazily insulting a celebrity gossip article on the Sun…
Oops. Better luck next time.
Our Comments Section who art on Facebook,
Hallowed be thy functions,
Your likes to be won,
Your arguments begun,
Online as they are irl.
Give us this day our daily thread,
And forgive us the odd snide remark,
As we forgive those who say obviously wrong and badly researched things.
And lead us not into frustration,
but deliver us from twits.
For thine is the social approval, the power,
and the glory.
For ever and ever.