Fergus Finlay: Good people are being driven out of politics by malice and bile on social media

Tech makes communication immeasurably faster and more effecient — but also facilitates the proliferation of dark forces online 
Fergus Finlay: Good people are being driven out of politics by malice and bile on social media

Technical progress enables immeasurably speedier and more efficient communications — but has also changed public discourse for the worse, not least through anonymous social media accounts.

By the time I’ve finished writing this, I’ll have spent a couple of days at it. It will take a tiny fraction of a second to transmit all that blood, sweat, and tears to the Irish Examiner’s office by email.

It will occupy 20 kilobytes of data on my computer — an infinitesimal amount of space, smaller than a speck of sand. Never mind the computer — in terms of data size, I could carry more than a million of these columns on the phone in my pocket.

The first significant political speech I ever wrote was designed to take about 20 minutes to read. So it was about 3,000 words long. Double spaced in an easy-to-read font, it covered about 12 pages.

My £3,000 typewriter

It was produced on an IBM Selectric typewriter. What a piece of kit that was. The company I worked for back then had one, and I borrowed it and brought it home. No easy task that — it weighed just under 19kg and was the size of a small table. And I nearly had to sign in blood that I’d replace it if it got broken. It cost around £300 in the early 1980s — I’m guessing that would be £3,000 or more nowadays.

Fergus Finlay pictured in 1996 with then Labour leader Dick Spring. Some 15 years previously, Mr Finlay's first significant speech for Mr Spring had to be delivered by hand, edited on paper, and retyped when finalised. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Fergus Finlay pictured in 1996 with then Labour leader Dick Spring. Some 15 years previously, Mr Finlay's first significant speech for Mr Spring had to be delivered by hand, edited on paper, and retyped when finalised. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

I hand-delivered the speech the following day to Dick Spring, who had asked me to draft it. He read it carefully, fountain pen in hand, and thanked me.

“I reckon it’s about 90% of what I need,” he said. For the next half hour we discussed amendments and changes, while he marked the speech with his pen.

Satisfied at last, he handed the only version I had produced to his brilliant assistant Sally Clarke (who I later discovered had been up most of the previous night because of negotiations that had dragged on for days). She completely retyped the entire thing. But if looks could kill… 

We were living in the most modern of times back then. But word processing hadn’t been invented yet. Neither, of course, had email, nor the internet. Not, at least, in the sense that any of them were available to ordinary citizens.

That speech led to me being asked to go and work for Dick Spring. In turn, that led to me being ensconced in Government Buildings in Merrion St for four years as deputy government press secretary. I was given my own electric typewriter and a secretary — who became a friend — to do the retyping.

Everyday miracle

Later, I persuaded the Government Information Service to buy me an actual word processor. It was the first of its kind, I believe, in the public service. An Amstrad PCW it was called, and I was the envy of all who surveyed it. You could write and edit and change and delete and cut and paste — stuff we take for granted now, but was like a miracle then. And this was the middle of the 1980s!

That Amstrad had floppy disks on which you stored your undying words. Each disk held 180 kilobytes of data, and you kept buying disks as they filled up. By the time I left Government Buildings I had accumulated several boxes of them. I bought the Amstrad from the department and used it for several years before word processing on real computers became a possibility.

It's hard to imagine nowadays how primitive all that was. What I thought was fast and powerful, if you tried to use it now, would drive you mad with frustration. The phone I mentioned earlier can hold 32 gigabytes of data. I would have to keep almost 180,000 of those old floppy disks to carry around that much information. I don’t have a house big enough.

And of course I can do anything with that phone, or with the array of computers I have on my desk now and carry with me to meetings (except you can’t have meetings these days, of course).

I can communicate to the whole world now, and I can do it in the wink of an eye. I can send emails at the speed of light. I can store pictures and add them to anything I want to. I can do calculations that used to take hours at the touch of a few buttons. If my audience is big enough, I can shift public opinion every now and again.

New rhythm dictated by technology

The technology we have now has changed the rhythm of everything. Especially politics, public opinion, and news.

Back then — and they were modern times as we thought — everything was communicated on paper. Even after fax machines became commonplace — remember them? — news was still delivered on paper. Paper mattered to politics more than anything else.

And the other difference it made was time. Sure, everything took longer to produce and deliver. But if you needed time to react, to analyse, and think, you had it. In those days, politics and news interacted quite differently then. The news cycle could be measured in days — a story that might emerge from a phone call to a reporter on Sunday afternoon might have developed into something pretty big by Tuesday or Wednesday, and produce a lot of commentary by the following weekend.

Even though politics often worked late into the night back then, it tended not to start too early in the day. Everything worked to a different pace, and politicians often led with ideas and helped to shape public opinion. Debate and discourse, even though it could sometimes be bitter, tended to be about ideas and ideology.

We might still have our values, but ideological debate is nearly a thing of the past now. The huge change that technology has made is that politics nowadays is about reaction. Social media often sets the pace. We all know how Trump used Twitter to dominate the news cycle and to twist it to his own ends. No other politician has been nearly as successful in using social media to build an agenda, but more and more politicians find themselves dancing to social media’s tune.

Social media manipulation

Technology has enabled not just the gathering of vast amounts of data, but also its manipulation. It has happened in the UK, in the US, and in Russia, with incalculable consequences. In that context, technology now has the power to change and distort the course of history.

Technology has also changed discourse. Politics is much less about ideas now, and much more about personalities. And personalities are increasingly defined by data — “what do the people want me to be?” is the unspoken question in too many politician’s heads.

Hate is creeping in 

Hate is creeping in little by little as well — there are good and decent people who have been driven out of politics altogether by the malice and bile that social media — especially anonymous social media — can generate.

These may be just the changes of the pendulum swinging. And maybe I’m just being nostalgic for the good old days. But I can’t help wondering if the way we have embraced technology — its speed, its power, its universal reach — is going to be something we’ll regret in the end. By then, of course, it will be too late.

Right now, we (sort of) control it. How much longer, I wonder, until technology controls us?

I wonder if the way we have embraced technology is going to be something we’ll regret in the end. 

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