To make an obvious point, snapshots of the likely election results basest on social media sentiment analysis were not supposed to appear here earlier, nor indeed in public at all. They were a private endeavour for close of poll and nothing to do with my personal account. For reference, they are snapshots based on social media sentiment analysis rather than scientific predictions. For what it is worth, these snapshots were closer to the overall result across the UK in 2015 than the opinion polls, but barely. We have the exit poll now anyway, but for the record the snapshots UK-wide suggested a Conservative majority of about 40.
Some people had a bit of fun with it and obviously I apologise to party colleagues who had to engage in some online clear-up at the end of a long and outstanding campaign. We may perhaps be thankful that there is no evidence social
media at this low level makes any difference to election results (and indeed the response served to emphasise who was running a progressive positive campaign and who was running a relentlessly negative one). Remember, social media also had one candidate “topping the poll” in South Belfast last time – and he ended up fourth.
While on the topic of social media, however, I will add this point: this General Election campaign on social media has been a thoroughly unpleasant experience, exhibiting the very worst of human nature from people who should know far better. In particular some people, and by no means in the usual “nasty” parties, have engaged in direct personal attacks on candidates which are shameful and have no place in a functioning democracy. This, accompanied by broad and relentless negativity even from some parties laughably referring to themselves as “progressive”, has been utterly depressing for all of us who try to be positive about this place.
By definition, you will not agree with every candidate and only a small minority will be elected anyway under FPTP. But anyone, absolutely anyone, who puts themselves before the electorate is worthy of respect for so doing. When they do so with a track record of delivery for people, not least when those people are disabled, or refugees, or oppressed minorities, they are worthy of considerably more respect. By all means challenge them on the issues or even on competence to deliver, but to engage in personal attacks is utterly unacceptable and an affront to democracy.
The fact is “social media rage” is like “road rage” – we behave behind a keyboard just as we do behind a steering wheel, so we think we can behave in a manner in which we would never behave in an average social setting. The outcome of this “rage” instinct, in far too many instances, is utterly frightening.
People who have engaged in such activity will no doubt expect to be dealt with civilly by their victims when they next encounter them offline in “real life”. If the victim is someone like Naomi Long or Paula Bradshaw, that expectation will be met – Naomi and Paula are, after all, civilised human beings both online and offline. However, there is no particular reason that expectation should be met. If you abuse or disrespect someone online, why should it not be assumed you will do so again “offline”?
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is, sadly, becoming ever more polarised to the extent that it would not surprise me at all (social media sentiment analysis or not) if the DUP and Sinn Féin delivered a clean sweep between them in NI except for North Down and probably Foyle. Elections here rarely deliver justice. However, it would be the sweetest outcome if for once some justice were forthcoming, and if Naomi and Paula were elected to send the shockwaves to those charged with governing but who refuse to do so.
Put briefly and bluntly: those who have engaged in such relentless negativity and (frankly) nastiness now need to have a long look at themselves, regardless of outcome, and recognise the harm they are causing to public debate and democracy itself. I would say to them simply: remember everything you say to or about someone online is in their presence (they can see it if they choose to), so if what you are about to say to (or about) someone online would be unacceptable offline then it is unacceptable full stop. Have a think about that.
More generally, we all need to find a much more effective and civil means of engaging in political and general public debate in the social media age. Frankly, if we don’t learn this after this utterly ludicrous election campaign across the UK, we never will. It is one of the main reasons democracy itself is in peril.