I need to start today’s column by declaring that I am a serial user of social media and especially Twitter and the dreaded Facebook.
I should further declare that I am one of the administrators of a Facebook group known as Guernsey People Have Your Say, which has a mostly locally resident membership of 17,000.
Based upon my social media experience, I feel I have to question Deputy Peter Ferbrache’s recent comment that we in Guernsey do not have a lynch mob mentality.
Like the famed Curate’s egg, our community is mostly good but some of it is bad. Very bad. Throughout history a part of our population has always been ready to cry ‘burn the witch’ at every opportunity and in some cases literally achieving the desired outcome.
In the 20th century things didn’t get a lot better with a minority of islanders tipping off the Gestapo as a way to settle old scores with their neighbours. Sometimes with the most awful consequences.
Every generation here has had its lynch mob cohort and, even though the outcomes may not be as deadly as in the past, we still see much hurt to reputations, livelihoods and mental health as a result of its vile behaviour.
The unique problem we face today is the ease with which the mob can communicate and the size of its audience. No longer the anonymous letter or Chinese whispers, but now a single comment on GPHYS is on average seen and read by 10,000 islanders within the space of half a day.
And GPHYS is not the only local Facebook group.
If at this stage you believe I am over-selling the notion of the lynch mob mentality in this fair island, then I ask you to ponder the treatment of former deputies Matt Fallaize and Barry Brehaut. To a certain, small, proportion of our community these fine fellows were nothing more than spawns of the devil and their policies were not only misguided but purposefully intended to disappoint and quite probably designed to enrich themselves and their cronies.
And like all bullying mobs, once they smelt blood in the water they went in for the political kill based not upon reasonable argument but in the main part illogical hysteria.
Now what can we do about all this? We can never stop the witch hunts. It somehow seems to be encoded in our DNA, and at least unlike other communities in the western world we don’t actually lynch or shoot people anymore.
The lynch mob has always hidden behind the principle of freedom of speech. My fellow volunteer admins on GPHYS, who do most of the heavy lifting, spend hours each day holding the line between free speech and mob rule. Constantly debating the morality or otherwise of posts and comments which at times enter the realm of the metaphysical. How we miss the wisdom of a former admin, the late and great Zef Eisenberg, in these difficult times.
The Guernsey Twitterati are, in the main, a fairly reputable lot who, though not perfect, look down on Facebook and refer to it as ‘The Dark Place’. Some of them in particular are of the view that GPHYS is the gateway to Hell and that I am the doorkeeper enticing people within.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and I will tell you why.
Social media is a tool. It is neither good nor bad, in the same way that a knife is neither good nor bad. However, like a knife, in the wrong hands social media can do an awful lot of harm. Or even in the right hands when misused can accidentally cause irreparable damage.
We will not ban knives because, in the main, knives are a force for good. Try cutting a loaf of bread with a spoon or buttering toast with a fork. Both are possible but undesirable and the result will probably fall short of good.
The right thing to do is educate people in the responsible use of knives. There will always be some defaulters but we must not let perfection be the enemy of good. At the end of the day knives will always be able to cause harm both intentionally and unintentionally.
As I mentioned before, many of our more capable social media users group together on Twitter and see the Guernsey community as a safe place, far away from the dark side of Facebook. Which is an awful shame. Because how do we eradicate the dark? We shine a light upon it.
On GPHYS the way to dispel the shadows which so annoy Deputy Ferbrache is to be the light and engage.
I have with my own eyes seen how the right kind of engagement can educate and change attitudes and behaviours. Deputy Jonathan Le Tocq, who understands the power of the light, has engaged tirelessly over the years and, though he may not always convert the intransigent demon, he does pass on a valuable lesson to the thousands of silent members who see but rarely comment.
President Trump (remember him?) knew the power of social media, but unfortunately revelled in the evil dark side. The only way to stop him was to remove him from the platform. And we do that on GPHYS, but that has to be the nuclear option. It is not for us to deny free speech to our members – we can attempt to control expletives, remove personal attacks and defuse any plan to storm the Greffe, but it does have to be a light editorial hand.
What we need as a community is more engagement from people who know the facts, which will prevent the fantasists from filling the void. I always wince when folk like our chief minister talk down social media. I agree with him that there are problems, but I weigh them against the enormous benefits we also see by allowing thousands of islanders to comment on and be informed about our island life. Engagement is what it is all about.
The States of Guernsey is pretty good at engaging. Our Assembly of politicians is not. If our chief minister wants to see social media moving more towards the light, he must encourage himself and others to engage and shine that light in dark places.
As a Guernseyman, he knows that donkeys react better to being led than driven.