Election 2019

This has certainly been one of the more interesting election campaigns in recent memory. By turns chaotic and mendacious, but nevertheless enthralling, I’m looking forward to an outcome on Friday morning which proves it (as well as to enjoying plenty of Portillo moments).

The last 24 hours has perhaps seen the worst of things as regards the dark arts with the beginning of the Tory advertising blitz via Facebook, coinciding with the re-generation of sock puppet accounts as a diversionary tactic to the horror of a boy lying on a hospital floor as there was no bed for him, and in the face of Johnson’s own dissembling and point blank refusal to look at the image when faced with it (now with 11m views…), coupled with a non-story about an adviser being punched.

From a policy point of view, there are two issues that need to be addressed here: firstly, the willing take-up of Dominic Cummings’s rouble-sourced bait by journalists who ought to know better; and secondly the dominance of the social media platforms, especially Facebook but also, albeit to a lesser extent, Twitter, in terms of the news we see and what, in a time-pressed world, we come to regard as truth.

Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg ought to know better, but rather than pin the blame on them in a conspiracy theory about the modern state of the BBC in the clutches of a vile government, I think the main problem lies with the failures of journalism under pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. Before t’internet came along, the time pressures where a journalist had a story to break would be somewhat less and publishing timetables tended to lend more time for fact checking in advance of publication or broadcast. Nowadays, journalists making their living in the field, and who have a story but fear being scooped, tend to report everything and then – occasionally – backtrack when proved wrong. Evidently, that’s often too late once tweets and posts have been shared and then amplified via individual networks.

Journalists need to be less afraid of being scooped and to take greater time to establish the facts before engaging with their social media accounts – or at least to qualify their messages with an acknowledgment that the situation is still being checked. I for one am quite happy if the news comes to me fact-checked and accurate, if a little slower; although I acknowledge that this understates the adrenaline rush realised by those among us who are the ‘first’ to tell us something. We also need to break the consensus that people spreading such stories are not ‘sources’ in the accepted journalistic sense and can be identified in the public interest. That might, however, need a little more solidarity between journalists if the cosy relationship between spinners and relayers is to be broken.

Secondly, James Mitchinson, Editor of the Yorkshire Post, got it spot-on yesterday in his response to one reader who took issue with his paper’s coverage of the story of what happened at Leeds General Infirmary. In a discombobulating world, when we do not know who to trust and when we have been led actively to distrust those institutions to which we formerly looked for honesty, it is very easy to be led astray. This is of course where Facebook – particularly – comes in since it has scooped up much of the local advertising revenues on which local journalism used to rely and whose loss has starved local papers of resources and journalists. The dispute over job cuts at the Herald has much to comment on this, also.

The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, but the unchecked abuse of its powers out in the wild can and should be better controlled, not least in terms of the potential for the manipulation of opinions during an election, as well as in terms of the stealing of identities and their use by/sale to hackers. When Facebook has such control but so little interest in exercising it responsibly – sock puppet accounts are as good as any other when it comes to the numbers proving continued growth to the investors – the only answer can be better regulation. Clearly it’s own – largely algorithm-based – actions to remove false accounts are not working and neither, does it seems, are its fraud reporting mechanisms (while Twitter’s are scarcely any better) while certainly it needs to have something in place which stops people impersonating and misrepresenting others and stealing data. This means that Facebook itself also has to put more of those advertising revenues into human intervention to ensure its user accounts are genuine.

(And the government needs to publish that Intelligence and Security Committee report into meddling in UK referendums and elections – it’s clearly already too late for this election, but there are lessons to be learned in respect of future ones.)

The Western Isles electoral seat – Scotland’s smallest, and a protected constituency under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 – was held in the last parliament by the SNP, with a majority of about 1,000 votes over Labour in second (and the rest nowhere). In Alison MacCorquodale, we have a good candidate from North Uist (and an active trade unionist, to boot) highly capable of building on the efforts of Ealasaid MacDonald in 2017 in making this a two-way, non-Tory marginal. Touring this southern end of the constituency at the weekend, the equal matching of red and yellow lamp-post favours was highly encouraging. All of which means I can vote Labour with both my heart and my head. Only Labour has the manifesto committed to ending austerity, re-building the NHS (and keeping Trump’s hands off it) and achieving real change for people.

Other people don’t have that luxury where a Labour candidate is neither the sitting MP nor the nearest challenger. If that’s you, and especially in those narrow marginals which will make a substantial difference to the outcome on Thursday, do vote for the candidate best placed to eject the Tory. There is a plethora of tactical voting websites to help you make your mind up, the latest addition being the @ledbydonkeys campaign to GetJohnsonGone. Others include Best for Britain’s tactical voting site Get Voting.

Do consult at least one of them and, even if you do, for one reason or another, have to hold your nose while putting your ‘x’ in that box, ensure that we wake up on Friday morning with a series of ‘Were you up when…?’ exits, Johnson gone, advisers with egg all over their faces and a future awaiting us in which we can together start to put right the things that have gone so wrong in the last nine years. Vote for hope.

280 characters – making a good thing bad?

My Twitter timeline this morning regularly features tweets agonising over Twitter’s decision yesterday to expand its ‘trial’ of 280 characters, applied a couple of weeks ago to some tweeters, to all users (among the best examples here and here. Oh, and here. As well as a delightful example of the scope afforded by the new limits here.). I guess that means the trial has been adjudged a success and Aliza Rozen, a Product Manager at Twitter, has produced some interesting data-based evidence on this. (Rozen also confesses that the reason for the expansion is that Twitter is hoping to expand use of the platform by dealing with the frustrations of tweets being abandoned because of the limit – so, at heart, it is of course all about the numbers.)

I’m a low-level, though growing, user of Twitter, and one the things that always put me off joining much earlier than I did (and that a full seven years ago), as a committed longform writer, was indeed the 140-character limit. However, I quickly came to appreciate that one of the better features of the limit was the imposed requirement for brevity and that a well-crafted tweet was, as a result, a thing of beauty. The original reason why 140 characters was selected was because it fitted within the 160 allowed by SMS plus enough for the user-name. Well, technology advances and SMS no longer require messages to be split so why should tweets? And, alightly unnervingly, we have already been moving in this direction for some time with Twitter relaxing the limit last year as regards quotes, polls, videos and images.

The downside of the character limit was that many simply abandoned (or were creative with…) spelling (and grammar) in order to force thoughts to fit within the limit, rather than better ordering them in the first place. Frequently, this made tweets hard to read but the better tweets, the ones written by those with faster and more ready wit, were all the more appreciated as a result. The limit also led to the practice of getting around the limit by ‘threading’ thoughts together; these can also be difficult to read where people simply write up to the character limit in each tweet in the thread rather than ordering their thoughts to a single one per tweet. A microblog should do exactly what it says on the tin: longform blogging is better done on other platforms (like this one!).

Doubling the length to 280 characters provides a lot of space (and takes up a lot of space on the screen). Such tweets are also harder to read quickly and, when Twitter users follow hundreds and thousands of others, this greater on-screen space will lead to a lot of interesting and valid thoughts being simply lost in cyberspace as a result of overload. But, ’twas ever thus. The difficulty is also that the character limit imposes a pressure of its own in both directions – not only to reduce to fit the limit, but also to expand thoughts up to the limit where the tweets appear to be ‘too’ short. @realdonaldtrump (I don’t follow – he crops up on my timeline enough as it is) is definitely guilty of this and the existing linguistic and of course other horrors of the Donald in 140 characters doesn’t bear thinking about when he catches on to the new limit. One of the more useful aphorisms in life is that less is definitely more.

People are likely to adjust quite quickly to the new expanded limit and behaviour will normalise, as Rozen expects. Some users will make full use of the greater verbosity now allowed (and still look for more); while the faithful will insist on sticking to 140 characters (some client apps already exist in this area, and some are likely to be re-written to provide a countdown to 140). Others are likely to find some ground in the middle.

Twitter’s evidence suggests that the vast majority of tweets are likely to stay within the lower limit. I really hope that turns out to be the case. 280 characters is, comparatively for the Twitter platform, a significant expansion and I really hope that this doesn’t lead to the loss of the well-crafted, pithy tweets that the lower limit encouraged, while giving people a little more room to order their thoughts when these are simply too complex to fit within 140 characters. Some words on this at Twitter’s third-quarter results call (link above) are reassuring. And abuse can always, of course, be dealt with promptly with judicious use of the ‘unfollow’ button.

But please, Twitter: no further character expansions. And please abandon any remaining thoughts of 10,000 character tweets.