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Opinion

Social media may be the new religion, but it hasn’t made us better people

With his takeover of Twitter, Elon Musk could help to change the face of social media – if he wanted to

When a protester threw eggs at King Charles in York last week, he missed. The protester clearly was a lousy shot. “About five eggs he’d managed to send,” an eyewitness said, speaking as if they were narrating an 18th century morality tale.

There is no great moral to be found. People are affectionate about the King and the royal family. As the protester threw his mis-aimed eggs, he shouted about slavery. The crowd replied with chants of “God save the King”.

I find that part odd. It’s a phrase with decreasing literal meaning. It’s a badge, a way of showing you are part of a tribe. But really, it has little to do with a belief that an eternal being will bring protection. Britain is a land of dwindling faith. Recent data showed the average attendance at Church of England services on a Sunday was around 600,000, less than one per cent of the population.

There is an imbalance between those who call for God to save Charles, the head of that Church, and those who actually go inside the places to put a little more meaning into the phrase. When the details of the 2021 census are published in full soon, they are expected to show that those who identify as Christian will fall below 50 per cent in England and Wales.

There are other faiths, of course, but it’s the drop in identity, and belief, in what many claim to be the religion of the nation, that is marked.

Twenty years ago, the number of people who identified as Christian was closer to 72 per cent. As that faith dwindles, we move to other places of shared joy and communion and a sense of higher powers. We have put a lot of time and focus into social media platforms.

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All of which might explain why the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter has caused such a curious uproar. Normally the takeover of a major corporation is a debate that rages on business pages. But on Twitter, the takeover of Twitter became the driving topic of discussion and hot takes. There was anger with what it might mean, that something sacred may be lost.

There was fury and confusion and people insisting they were leaving. You couldn’t move for a week for big talk about Mastodon. It took some time before I realised this wasn’t a curious swelling of support for the veteran metal band. There was more anger at the putative cost of a blue tick than about the 3,700 people turfed unceremoniously out of a job. Real faith brings with it some humility. Social media, less so.

Besides, while Twitter is a useful place to meet and share and speak, it can also be a place where terrible personal abuse is meted out. A report by the BBC last week said that 3,000 offensive tweets are sent to UK MPs every day. A great number were sent to women, and many of these were threats using the language of sexual violence. A lot were coming from anonymous accounts. And of course, that’s just politicians, not the thousands of other people who suffer some level of abuse each day.

I don’t know what Musk’s plans are for what appears to be a very, very expensive vanity purchase. But if he manages to slash down the volume of anonymous, vile trolls, then that would restore some faith in his platform.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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