Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The use and abuse of Twitter

IT WAS AROUND the beginning of 2009 that I first got onto Twitter. I came across a slightly puerile and over-opinionated article in an Indian newspaper mocking LK Advani’s use of blogs to signal the tech-savvy nature of the BJP campaign. Blogging, the journalist suggested, was horribly dated. Those at the frontier of online fashion now used Twitter.

Some nine years and more than a million followers later, I am still on Twitter. I may not post messages regularly, but I do check the site. There was a time when its fights and controversies excited me and occasionally propelled an intervention. These days, however, unless I have something frightfully original to say, I try to stay away from posting messages. Better still, I try to reserve comments for my newspaper articles that—alas—demand interventions much longer than the 140 characters favoured by Twitter.

It now occurs to me that I am terribly old fashioned. I still read books—preferably the ‘hard’ copy; I write articles that vary in length from 1,250 words (the longest) to 750 words; and I don’t believe that the political pulse can be assessed by merely monitoring Twitter postings.

Come to think of it, I am fast turning into a dinosaur. For example, I am utterly baffled that a great deal of political reporting, especially in the English-language media, comprises monitoring either Twitter posts or TV bites of politicians. I am also struck and horrified that many of the so-called political analysts of today—a disproportionate number of them are engaged by online news portals—have never actually met or had private conversations with the subjects of their inquiries. Never mind the ‘off the record’ briefings that used to be the bread-and-butter of political journalism in the past, political interaction in recent times is all about journalists talking to one another. Political news is no longer about what politicians think and their engagements with the wider electorate. It is about what individual journalists feel should happen—as opposed to what is happening. More to the point, the test of good journalism is no longer accuracy and prescience, it is the ability to garnish opinionated utterances with oodles of insolence. Rudeness is often equated with fearlessness.

Of course, when there isn’t very much to say, there is always a temptation to create a controversy on Twitter. Last week, I came across the case of Priyamvada Gopal, a left-wing pamphleteer who occasionally writes for the sanctimonious Guardian in jargonised prose. It seems that the porters of King’s College, Cambridge, had been rude and condescending towards her by addressing her as ‘Madam’ rather than Dr Gopal. She appears to have had a hissy fit as a consequence and proclaimed that she would not teach any students from King’s. The venerable Dr Gopal made this announcement on Twitter, presumably the favoured platform for the dissemination of information in Cambridge.

How some self-important academic has reacted to brusque and probably prejudiced porters in Cambridge is potentially interesting to bored dons at the High Table. I recall how some of the older dons at Nuffield College in Oxford (where I was a Research Fellow in the early 1980s) sniggered and cackled over the fact that I once went to a wrong meeting because I misunderstood a circular—such was the dreariness of their lives. Frankly, the private grievances of dons should be of interest to few others. Ms Gopal chose to enlarge a private feud into a battle for righting some historical wrong by going on Twitter. Her decision to boycott students of a venerable college with rude porters did the trick. National papers in the UK picked up the story and showered Dr Gopal with both the fame and notoriety she has been seeking for her ridiculous ‘post-colonial’ posturing. Soon, she will be called on Question Time and probably invited by Jeremy Corbyn to become something of consequence in the unfortunate event the Reds come to power in Britain. White radicals love to be guilt tripped by more radical persons of colour. And all because she fulminated on Twitter.

The trend is becoming infectious. Last week, the editor of a publication that I quite like asked me about a former colleague, now a media entrepreneur. Neither of us could recall a single article or news report he had penned in the past few months. But we both recalled a few of his recent tweets that were commentaries on the state of the nation. That is the power of social media.