Rihanna and Piers Morgan highlight the perils of debate on Twitter

140 characters is not enough for a reasoned argument

For those of us who take an active interest in domestic and international affairs, who keep informed through the medium of newspapers, who listen to Radio 4 and watch "Newsnight", the world seems like a quite reasonable place. Ideas are put forward, opinions are exchanged, a debate is conducted, and we are left to make our minds up. It's how things are conducted in a mature democracy with responsible media.

What we sometimes forget is that, outside of this cloistered environment, the world is a rather unfriendly place, where ideas are stamped on and people with opinions are crushed. Of course, anyone who thinks that Twitter is the medium for intelligent, reasonable debate needs their head examined. However, the truth is that this is where a vast amount of public discourse is conducted these days. It's not across a desk with Kirsty Wark, it's over 140 characters with anyone from Vladivostok to Vancouver who has access to a screen.

Here, complex ideas are reduced to hashtags, and at any minute you can hear the howling mob banging on your door. The corrosive effect of this - which has already seeped into the more traditional means of exchange - is that people become frightened of saying what they think. Take the pop singer Rhianna. She has 36 million followers on Twitter, and the other day they were party to a tweet that simply read "#FreePalestine".

Anyone who has seen the images of bodies being carried out of the rubble in Gaza might find this an innocuous, if trite, sentiment. On posting, Rhianna was inundated with aggressive responses, asking whether she supported Hamas. The tweet was posted at 9.14am, and by 9.22  the tweet was deleted, but not before it was retweeted almost 7,000 times. Clearly, Rhianna didn't have the time to explain her nuanced view that, no, she doesn't support the murderous policies of Hamas, but feels the Palestinian people have a right to self-determination while not repudiating the right of Israel to exist within stable, internationally-recognised borders. Instead, she replaced the original tweet with an anodyne musing: Let's pray for peace etc, etc, blah, blah.


And then there's Piers Morgan who had the brass neck to go a step further than Rhianna by posting "#FreePalestineAndIsrael". The arch controversialist was at it again, provoking the Twitter millions with a fair-minded opinion. The response was not slow in coming. He was called an "idiot" (patently untrue), "Zionist scum" (he's an Irish Catholic) and a "fat, ugly, ignorant c***" (make your own mind up). Piers likes nothing more than a verbal scrap, so he wasn't cowed by the offensive reaction. But, clever and articulate though he is, he discovered that Twitter is no place for a grown-up debate. Instead, he resorted to platitude - we need a Nelson Mandela figure, he suggested - and distasteful nonsense - a reference to his row with Jeremy Clarkson made it sound as if this was on the same scale as Israel-Palestine. Top marks to Piers for taking the argument head-on, but even he was surprised by the barrage of abuse. And this, I'm afraid, is what's happening in the real, virtual world, all the time you're listening to the calm, reasonable tones of James Naughtie.

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