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Freedom of speech

Has the world become an angrier place? That’s the question I’ve been pondering this week, particularly in light of the news that the world’s wealthiest person has swooped in and snapped up the blue bird (Twitter) for a huge sum of money. 

Elon Musk has over 85 million followers on the platform, and famously wiped 14 billion dollars off Tesla’s share price with one tweet about its share price being too high. It made the famous Gerald Ratner jewellery gaffe pale into insignificance. He also got into a famous spat with a cave rescuer, which he won, and is a prolific presence on the platform.

Twitter has always been a place where things can easily descend into a row, even before you’ve had time to type all 280 characters of your tweet. 

I love a lively discussion more than the next man, particularly about Brexit, music and politics. I am a confirmed news junkie, and have to try to limit how much rolling coverage I watch sometimes, for the sake of my own resting heart rate. Twitter is a great platform for seeing breaking news stories first, but it is also riddled with issues, some of which Musk has vowed to tackle.

He is on record as saying he wants more ‘free speech’, but it’s an interesting question where you draw the line on that. 

I’ve reported many tweets over the years which have been clear examples of racism and harassing behaviour, but have either heard nothing back from their team of moderators, or perhaps worse, been told that no ‘community standards’ have been breached. 

It’s almost always anonymous accounts which cross this line, and it is really poisonous and damaging. ‘Bots’ are behind many of the tweets, and Musk has also said he wants to crack down more on these factories of flame fanners. I wonder how much influence social media had on the likes of the Brexit vote. We may never fully know.

In a recent interview on the BBC’s Newscast, Kirstie Allsopp said that she advises contestants on her show not to log onto their social media on the day their episode is aired. I found this really eyebrow raising and also rather sad, but alas it’s true that some people bash away at their keyboards in their underpants and spew out a diatribe of dirge against people they won’t ever meet. In fact, it’s likely they wouldn’t have the guts to say any of it to their face.

So is total freedom of expression just going to make this worse? What exactly is classed as hate speech? What about incitement to violence? Did the Capitol building riots in America happen because of incitement on social media? I certainly think it could be argued it played a huge part in this most bleak of days for US democracy.

I have no issue with seeing opinions I don’t agree with, and think this is healthy. Sometimes, the current algorithms have a tendency to show you more of what they think you’ll agree with, based on the content you’ve liked. I try and read editorials from newspapers with polar opposite views to my own, so a similar system on social media can only broaden one’s mind.

Three hundred million use it regularly, but it is a minnow compared to the likes of Instagram and TikTok. I must admit I’m half tempted to jack it in, as I spend far too much time ‘doom scrolling’. 

This change of ownership may provide me with the excuse I need; but then again, I fear I’d miss the fun elements of it too much.

It could prove to be a shrewd move from the Tesla entrepreneur, or it could be a bit like the time ITV shelled out a fortune for Friends Reunited just as we all decamped over to Facebook, and their new acquisition joined Bebo on the technological scrapheap. Only time will tell. He has said he’s not that interested in making money on it.

As for this week’s other big story concerning Ashton MP Angela Rayner, I wanted to put on record that I can’t actually believe what I read in a national newspaper last weekend. If the comments about her legs were actually briefed to the journalist, whoever said them ought to have to courage to put their name to them, and have a good long look at themselves in the mirror. 

It reminded me of a Mail front page where Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon met, and the headline centred around ‘Who Won Legs-It’. Have we not moved on at all in the last five years? 

We need more people to consider a career in politics, not less, and goodness knows you need a thick skin as it is (us fragile egoed radio types would last two minutes!). Imagine how Angela Rayner’s family felt as she was objectified in the most crass and caveman-like way. Surely we are better than that. The article also reeked of snobbery and classism, as Rayner told ITV’s Lorraine programme this week. Lamentable stuff.

Right, I’d best go and check my Twitter feed again. It’s been at least ten minutes.

Tameside Radio's Breakfast presenter Alex B Cann.

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