Words in the blogosphere are powerful things, as the William Hague case shows. We must learn to self-police this new world
Now, I am (visibly) gay and Ben is happily married with children; but I sometimes see, from the corner of my eye, how the other drinkers are looking at us. Not with malice, nothing like that, just a quick flash of recognition: oh look at those two gay blokes, they’re having a good time. But I’m wondering, in the light of recent events, what would happen to our friendship were I ever to have achieved my ambition of fighting a seat and becoming a member of parliament?
Worse – Ben is a skilled, professional writer – what would happen if I’d ever suggested to my party that we employ him to produce election literature for us? And then were seen, by a blogger, emptying a bottle of wine down our throats and laughing together in easy companionship? You don’t need to imagine what the people who comment on political blogs would write – you just have to have a strong stomach, and take a look at the remarks posted on Guido Fawkes website under his articles about William Hague.
OK, so I’m a wannabe candidate, and not the foreign secretary. No one is interested in what I do. My point, though, is that due to the rise of the blogosphere, should anyone take an interest in you, they have the power to spread their thoughts about you more rapidly, with fewer sanctions, to a wider audience, than at any previous time in history. Transparency is a good thing, and the public has a right to know what elected representatives do with public money. (In the past, Guido has served the public good by writing stories the mainstream media wouldn’t touch.) But when the accusations are groundless, as the ones about William Hague are, damage is done to a person’s reputation so casually, so easily, that we should consider the implications of the new information environment we inhabit.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say we are living through the end of privacy. In 20 years’ time I reckon that the social norm will be to have every aspect of our lives in the public domain, and I find this frightening. Those of us who grew up in the cold war, with Orwell as our political guide, can be struck by the absurdity of some of this new era’s manifestations: Big Brother doesn’t need to impose telescreens on us – rather he has to fight off the applicants who want to display their every movement on television. He doesn’t need a secret police to rifle surreptitiously through our locked diaries – we post them online for everyone to read. We measure our success as social beings by the number of citizens who want to read our thoughts.
Big Brother and Twitter are voluntary – for now. But suppose you want to keep something private? If you are in “public life” (as MPs are, though, of course, as we all are to some extent) then you are not permitted this freedom anymore. All someone has to do is speculate: Politician X suffers from depression, for example – and politician X finds himself in the impossible position of not being able to prove a negative, or, worse, having to confirm a story that is no one’s business but his own and his physician’s. You might not care about politicians. But suppose someone wrote this about you: S/he doesn’t pull his/her weight in this office on your internal company website. Isn’t your interaction with office colleagues a “public life”? Don’t your colleagues have the right to discuss you?
The media will not wind back to a 1950s deference, thank goodness. We should be aware, though, of the implications – for all of us – that the new social norm is to share everything, at all times, with everybody – and that a failure so to do will be taken by many as a sign of something wicked being hidden.
My best hope is that we develop a corresponding sense of responsibility to self-police this new world. (The idea of legislative standards for blogs strikes me as simultaneously illiberal and fatuously impractical.) Words are real things with power in the universe, no matter what your parents taught you about sticks and stones. Bloggers should consider the impact of their words on the real human beings they are describing, and realise that they share at least some of the moral responsibility for the comments which they allow their readers to publish.