There is an army of social media users out there calling out this government every day. Should we scorn or celebrate them?
I began using Facebook for political discussion in 2018. The conversation was then focussed on Brexit but inevitably in 2020 it also embraced the management of Covid by the government. The opinions in this article are confined to Facebook as I don’t really use other social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram etc. Admittedly, I only use Facebook for politics and so politics is what the algorithmic gods throw back at me. And, of course, they are keen to present views that fit my own left wing stance though I’ve tricked it successfully sometimes into thinking I’m a Tory just to stop my daily feed imploding into a super-gravitational black hole of ‘like mindedness’.
Like many people, I check my Facebook page often and each time I find a new seemingly endless list of posts written by many individuals on the horrors of our current Tory government. Above all, these daily threads display the enormous amount of political writing that is taking place at a grass roots level on social media platforms. They represent the outpourings of a proverbial army of ‘keyboard warriors’. Why are they doing this and is there any point?
The expression ‘keyboard warrior’ is generally used as a derogatory term to refer to someone who is too complacent to take action in the real world and so reverts to angry complaints online instead – an armchair moaner with nothing more useful to do than rant into the void, often with an overblown sense of self-importance that deludes them into thinking the world is actually listening and cares. I admit to having made this charge myself in the past, especially when I’ve felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ‘talk’. And I do worry that FB is an easy form of catharsis where the expression of strong opinions and feelings gives the writer a false sense that they’ve made a difference whilst in fact being a substitute for making any real difference at all. This is an ongoing concern.
But is this derogatory view of anti-government keyboard warriors fair? Are they just futile armchair moaners?
Who are they and why do they do it?
I have never met and almost certainly never will meet the keyboard warriors I come across online, though some of their names have become familiar over the months and years. Of course, there are always those whose sole purpose in posting is to pour a cold draft of scorn on the efforts of others – vis
“Really why are you bothering?!! This government isn’t listening and never will. They have an 80 seat majority, so we might as well pack up and go home frankly”
“This country is run by the rich for the rich. They hold all the money and therefore all the cards. We are just pawns in their game. Don’t waste your breath”.
In addition to the roaming cynics, tribal battles rage continually between the left and the right of the Left. The Starmerites are ‘Blairites in sheep’s clothing and traitors to socialism’, whilst the Corybnites are ‘fanatical Marxist militants determined never to be elected’. This kind of mud is slung continually back and forth across the disconcertingly large ideological chasm between the Labour factions.
But outside of these more destructive aspects of posting there is a more constructive initiative in presenting and sharing concerns about the Tory government’s actions. Some contributors are social media veterans just turning their attention to what is politically topical and concerning. But, for others, venturing on to a social media platform is new and something they clearly feel driven to do by sheer frustration and a lack of alternative outlets. I’ve seen so many posts that begin something like:
“I don’t normally use social media but I’ve joined this group because I’m so angry at what’s happening I felt I had to speak up …”
“I’m in my 60s/70s. I’m not a political person but I am so troubled by the government’s actions that I’ve decided to say something on here …”
“I’m posting on here because for two whole years I’ve been trying to persuade my parents why Brexit is wrong. I’m getting nowhere. Please help …”
Some posts are from people who maybe haven’t written their views down for a long time or who find it harder to express themselves. But nevertheless there they are, braving the airways and giving it their all.
Writers are sometimes lone voices typing secretly in back bedrooms in defiance of the views of even their close family and friends. I’ve also come across posts from spirited souls called for example ‘The [name of town] Revolutionary Action Party’ that turns out to be just one person heroically devoting his spare time to challenging the government. Another single voice shouts eloquently about why the UK should retain its membership of the EU from the depths of some Brexitland village in the Home Counties. Groups spring up in defiance of the government each with their own identity but sometimes with charmingly wafer-thin differences in their titles, e.g. ‘Tory Government Out, ‘Remove The Tories’, ‘Tories Out Now’.
Many of the keyboard warriors on FB are persistent and intelligent – their posts are sometimes painstakingly researched, insightful and thought provoking. Some are also inventive and witty and make use of clever images and memes. The writing skills on some FB posts are also good enough to put the celebrity journalists – the Laura Kuenssbergs and Evan Davises – to shame. But the key point about all these keyboard warriors is that they are dogged – they are passionate citizens who have been contributing posts, likes, shares and replies on social media on an almost daily basis for years. And they do not give up – they are the Steve Brays of the internet and it is surely time to celebrate their efforts.
But does it make any difference?
Great – good for them, you might say. But what (really) is the point?
Firstly, keyboard warriors play a vital role in countering the arm’s length feel of our clunky representative democracy. Bad (political) stuff happens (now on a daily basis). This is maddening and yet justice, if it happens at all, only occurs with dinosaur slowness. We can write to our local MP and wait for a more or less satisfactory reply or wait until the next election. But when one’s rights, for example to protest, are being removed imminently or one’s relatives have just died from Covid, this is an agonizingly protracted process. On the other hand, whilst posting isn’t a fast track to justice, it does provide a form of active, direct involvement – by being, at least, shared in a public space in which others can immediately engage (via comments, likes, advise, shares etc.) the grievance is ‘heard’.
Secondly, posting news items on social media is a vital way of getting information to people from outside of the constraints and general right-wing bias of mainstream media (MSM). For example, neither the Speaker of the House of Commons nor the MSM challenge the lies spewed every week by Johnson in Prime Minister’s Questions. It is instead often in social media posts where these lies are first exposed, checked and challenged. Similarly, it’s not the MSM but the keyboard warriors who spread the word about the protests happening in many major cities over the new policing and protest laws. The BBC news managed to get no further than Myanmar. The situation there is tragic, of course, but it is also inexcusable to fail to report on the protests happening right under our noses in our own country. I don’t pretend that social media invariably provides a more truthful account of news events. But it is an alternative voice and often a corrective to the establishment narrative.
Thirdly, unlike even the independent news media, keyboard warriors generate an opposition conversation. Independent news that scrutinizes the Tory government is vital, of course, but the experience for the reader is still a passive absorption of material written by others. Online posting, by contrast, allows for an immediate, interactive contribution to the debate. All these platforms should ideally work together, but keyboard warriors have their own unique role to play.
Fourthly, the posts of keyboard warriors offer a forum which enables people to see that they are not alone in the views they hold. This applies to any viewpoints, of course, however mad they are (for example conspiracy theories). But just because social media can be a spawning ground for dangerous viewpoints should not undermine its role as a force for good. As applied to the follies of this Tory government, the posts of keyboard warriors have provided crucial support for ‘us unheard masses’ and consequently have had a key part in consolidating and strengthening the voice of opposition.
On this point it’s worth noting that the ‘armchair moaner’ complaint hasn’t even been applicable for the past year because lockdown constraints have meant that social media has been the only outlet most ordinary people have had for expressing their political concerns. People have been shut at home battered by a daily onslaught of serial government incompetence and dishonesty. Social media has been, for many, the only way to keep on course and stay sane in the midst of all of this. Now that our right to protest in the flesh is about to be significantly curtailed by the new policing laws, the role of the political keyboard warrior may be about to become even more crucial.
I decided to write this article at this point in time because, in response to the government’s creeping moves towards dictatorship, I know the morale of many keyboard warriors is now hanging by a thread. So, here’s to all of you out there fighting singlehandedly on your keyboards for justice and democracy – take a bow please for being a vital part of the glue keeping the voice of reason together.
And keep going.