The people who run social media applications love boasting about the supposed good their products do. Whenever a benevolent revolution is under way, Twitter swells up with pride. It is the samizdat of new century. Can't we award it a Nobel Peace Prize?
The same Twitter people are not quite so vocal when the US president-elect is bellowing at union reps in the early hours of the morning.
The “first Twitter election” – 2012, I’d argue – was a relatively benign affair. The second Twitter election saw the medium used to spread unimaginable quantities of information sewage. It was one of the 173 things that cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.
How might Twitter have coloured significant historical events? The notion of #Watergate Twitter fairly boils the brain. The application seems designed for paranoiacs such as the late, beleaguered version of Richard Nixon.
"Biased Woodstein spreading falsehoods in failing Washington Post. #Liars #commies," Nixon might have tweeted from his bunker. As the story progressed, he would surely have sought to put his own spin on each development. "John Dean whistleblower? Ass-blower more like! #quisling."
It requires no huge leap of imagination to see the era’s most famous quotes being turned into hashtags. Nixon and his supporters would surely have appended #notacrook to every relevant Tweet. Later on, #expletivedeleted would bind followers of the Watergate hearings.
Tricky for Dick
As the walls closed in, Nixon had no unmediated channel to his public. Some right-wing publications offered support, but, even in those places, the president had to rely on commentators to make his case. His periodic addresses to the nation were crammed between news reports detailing ever-greater outrages against the constitution.
How Nixon would have enjoyed tweeting a picture of Walter Cronkite with the newscaster's head replaced by that of Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "Here is the News! I'm in still in the KENNEDYS' POCKET. #blubbedonTV #kissass."
Would any of this have made a difference? By the time Nixon resigned, his approval figures were in the lavatory. It was unfeasible for him to continue.
Recent developments have confirmed that Twitter rants do much to keep the faithful on board. Combine that with the fake news on Facebook, and it's not hard to imagine the Washington Post and the New York Times coverage being dismissed by the president's core constituency.
“Carl Bernstein is the illegitimate son of Brezhnev and Rose Kennedy, ” this story reads. “Fidel Castro and Democratic National Committee conspiring to sell heroin in our public schools,” another tells us.
None of this is any more ludicrous than the current invention about Hillary Clinton involved in a paedophile ring that operates through pizza parlours. A popular swell behind Nixon may well have stopped the investigations in their tracks.
Dreyfus then and now
And how the medium would have suited the Dreyfus affair. Leaf through Proust and, when that business is brought up, you will be struck by how contemporary the story seems. Large parts of it involved unsubstantiated rumour derived from absurd lies and bigoted innuendo.
Nothing much would have changed if social media had been around in France at the turn of the last century. The case had already played out like the worst sort of Twitter storm. Indeed, accused of spying by an anti-Semitic establishment, Alfred Dreyfus might have ended up in Devil’s Island a little bit sooner.
Emile Zola’s famous letter of defence, instrumental in setting Dreyfus free, could easily have become lost in a morass of competing blog posts. Decent people would have appended “j’accuse” twibbons to their avatars, but the mass of lies might just be too mighty to deflect.
One can’t even start to imagine how Twitter might have accelerated or retarded the abdication of King Edward VIII. Remember that a supplicant press kept all mention of Mrs Simpson quiet until the crisis was close to boiling point.
The media in fin de siècle France feels closer to us now than that of inter-war Britain. But we can say that the king was hugely popular and that he worked the public in a fashion Trump would admire.
“One is visiting mines in South Wales. #somethingmustbedone,” he might have tweeted in 1936. The medium might have kept him in the palace and allowed uneasy royal connections to Hitler to flourish.
I like the idea of Irish people tweeting #thunderingdisgrace (and its rumoured more profane derivation) before the fall of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh in 1976. The furious debates between supporters of Parnell and those who thought his relationship with Kitty O’Shea an outrage would have led to blocking on an industrial scale.
All of this would be good fun. But little of it would be productive. Twitter and related social media bring more uncontrollable heat than clarifying light to our arguments. They offer yet another route to doom.