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Expert comment: Sex, lies and the Twitterscape?

As the President-elect prepares to take office, Professional Tutor in Business Tony Bradley discusses Donald Trump, Twitter and social media as a platform for political announcements.

Raise your left hand, place your right hand on the book and repeat after me. “I think I’m smart. I know I’m smart. I am smart. How do I know? It says it here on Twitter. And that never lies in less than 140 characters.” To save you counting – precisely 140!

A series of auspicious, bizarrely serendipitous or awkwardly coincidental events have come together this week, depending on your viewpoint. It is the week of President-Elect Donald Trump’s inauguration as the most powerful man on the planet. The current (as I write the sand is almost through the egg-timer) US President, Barack Obama, has just announced the pardon of Chelsea Manning, whilst not commuting the treason charge against Edward Snowden.  

Then, Julian Assange agrees to ‘hand himself in’ by offering to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy, if Chelsea Manning has her sentence commuted. This would result in his arrest and extradition to face charges in the US. These charges relate to the unlawful publication of state secrets through Wiki-leaks, as well as those related to sexual misconduct, brought within the Swedish jurisdiction. The secrets are out in the open whilst the hidden purveyors are seeking sanctuary.

All this has happened against a background of swirling accusations of distinctly dodgy dossiers held by the Russian secret service, pointing towards ‘conduct unbecoming’ by the next US President. It should be said, of course, that there is no evidence in the public domain for any dossier existing. Nor do we know if the events to which they pertain could have happened, or that the US or UK secret services have the intelligence some say they have.  

If this all sounds like the looking-glass world of le Carre or Spooks think again. The releasing of secrets; the holding of lies, and the choice of social media for political pronouncement – these are no less or more than the doublespeak world that we are fast learning to live in. Fake news, post-truth, science-by-democracy, the blogging of fictional facts and factional fixes; these are all the mill-grist of the contemporary media. The secrets are out there. Whilst the public domain of evidence and science becomes occluded, half-seen as a clandestine world of murky claim and counter-claim (viz climate change or Holocaust denial). 

Equally, it looks like The Donald’s penchant for policy-by-tweet may become an established part of the US political landscape. All this as the role of experts, advisers and trusted security agencies are relegated to just another set of twittering, chattering classes, seeking to get their voice heard over the babble of social media. But, should we be concerned by this tendency towards ‘believe what you wish’, let the majority decide what is true and use social media as the arbiter of evidence, secrets and lies? Well, yes, we should.

Obama’s great rallying cry has become distorted against his style of rather old-fashioned, somewhat patrician, professorial and gentlemanly Government. “Yes, we can” now means we can say what we like, do what we like, argue what we like, just because we can. Well, nothing new in that, we might think. Politicians, the press and opinion-formers have always used their media outlets to bolster their most venal and base causes. Yet, I detect something new in the current battle over secrets and lies.

It is becoming acceptable to shout down the voices of reason, careful research and the quiet quest for grains of truth in the mire. It is right to question the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden whilst, at the same time, valuing the principle behind their desire to let the people know. Yet, democracy has its limitations. There is a place for inconvenient truths, state secrets, partially closed Government, and the protection of those who risk their lives collecting evidence or speaking truth-to-power behind closed doors. Is it right to put every secret onto the internet? Is it smart to tweet all your immediate thoughts to an ever-open media ear? Or, might we ask, as Donald Trump, raises his hand and takes the oath: isn’t it even smarter to put down the phone, close the embassy door and seek expertise for framing policy? But, hold on, that may just require more than 140 characters.

Published on 20/03/2018