It took James Caan only a few moments to tweet an untruth, but over half a day to answer calls to correct it. Even then, he did not admit to having originally made a mistake. Instead, he tried to bluff his way out of it and, as we write, his original falsehood remains undeleted.
The facts are as follows. The businessman suggested that the Government is spending £500 million to change the colour of our passports. But he was wrong: passport design is changed regularly; the cost is that of updating them; the colour adds not a penny to it. Anyone can tweet in error, as Caan did, and the course to take, if one does so, is to retract promptly. Instead, he let his falsehood hang in cyberspace for over twelve hours before pronoucing further. By that time, it had been retweeted over 20,000 times. And it is still up as we write.
Another day in politics; another social media row. So all the more reason to cling to a sense of proportion. Most people are not on Twitter. Most of those who are haven’t heard of Caan, let alone seen his falsehood. It can be argued that social media is a bubble; that many more people will be delighted to hear that “the iconic blue passport will return”, as the Prime Minister puts it; and, in any event, that the Government deserved what it got, because her claim was itself untrue. The new passport will be a different shade of blue, and won’t be the same size.
At any rate, Ministers’ Twitter rebuttal remains a work in progress. As we write, Brandon Lewis, the Minister responsible, has tweeted once about Caan’s falsehood, and without addressing him directly. He might want to take a leaf out of David Gauke’s book. Frank Field got the wrong end of the stick about a constituent’s Universal Credit claim. The Work and Pensions Secretary turned it the right way round – and, when Field persisted in error, gave him a slap on the bottom with it. Michael Gove and CCHQ were no less energetic in responding to lies that will have got wider circulation – namely, claims that Conservatives don’t believe that animals are sentient.
Many people itch to bring the curtain down on the whole social media show, however they vote (presuming that they do in the first place). Their objections carry weight. The anonymous libels, the fake news, the cyber bullying, the online predators, the ISIS videos, the damage to children’s mental health – all these put goofy optimism about technology and progress into essential perspective. Some go on to claim that social media such as Twitter or Facebook are not a platform, with the same neutral status as newsprint, but publishers, just like newspapers, and should be subject to much the same framework of law.
Whatever your view, social media wouldn’t be able to survive such a change (in their present form, at least). If, for example, Twitter had to pre-check tweets for libel, it would lose its immediacy, and thus a big part of its point. It is unlikely that a majority exists for such radical change. And there is a counter-case to the criticisms of social media. If you want quick directions, cheaper rides, swift answers to questions, encyclopedias at your fingertips, goods delivered to your door, people who share your interests or a pulpit for your views, social media delivers. Like walking on the moon, itself once almost unimaginable, it is “a giant leap for mankind”.
The counter-view to social media as publishers is that it instead offers a platform. Perhaps a better image – certainly a more human one – is that of a pub landlord. He has certain obligations: not to let his premises become a den for, say, child pornography or terror plots. And so do social media providers. It follows that if pre-publication scrutiny is impracticable – at least if we want social media to exist in its present form – then post-publication action must follow. The companies concerned must be expected to spend a lot of time and money taking criminal material down, and be subject to socking great fines if they don’t put the effort in to do so.
Perhaps the best way of viewing social media is to accept that development necessarily brings dangers: they are, so to speak, in the small print. Social media enables parents to keep in touch with their children; it also exposes those children to the unkindness of strangers. And those who have a go at the social media firms should be probed no less closely than those giants themselves. Some of the criticism comes from those who campaign for freedom: consider Facebook’s work on censorship tools for potential use in China. Other complaints are made by those with an axe to grind, such as newspapers with falling circulation.
Gauke’s friends say that he would not have been able to rebut Field so comprehensively had his diary not allowed the opportunity. Even so, it was not the most productive use of his time. But it was none the less an important one, and part and parcel of the world we live in. The challenges that social media poses – such as the potential division of nations into shrieking tribes, each consuming their own versions of fake news – are primarily to civil society, not the state. And it is civil society that must take the lead in dealing with them – responding, explaining, correcting, cajoling: ensuring that persisting in untruth becomes a no-Caan-do.
“Untruth” is a bit of a namby-pamby word, but we deploy it for a reason. ConservativeHome is signing off on the eve of Christmas, and it may be worth looking at blue passports, Gauke, Gove, animal sentience and all the rest of it in the season’s light. Politicians are chary out lying outright – not least because they tend to get found out if they do – but are frequently, as a former Cabinet Secretary once put it, “economical with the truth”. That is not only in the nature of politics. It is in that of institutions, of manners, of conduct, of conversation – of human life itself.
When the child born in Bethlehem became a man, he didn’t always, even usually, answer questions directly, especially when they were designed to catch him out. But at the heart of Christianity is a hunger, shared by people of all religions and none, for truth in its pure form – unvarnished, direct…and uneconomical. On Christmas Day, the gospel reading declares that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among…full of grace and truth”. And whether one believes in its message or not, there is force in the claim, made by Jesus of Nazareth, that truth sets you free.
None the less, it comes with a cost – and if that includes rolling up one’s sleeves on social media or elsewhere, then so be it. We wish our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.