The US President has 42 million Twitter followers, 39 million “likes” on Facebook and a responsibility to represent the interests of 314 million Americans – but how many of them can just pick up the phone and call Barry for a chat? Mark Zuckerberg is one. On Thursday, in a public post, the 29-year-old Facebook founder wrote of his concern over the threat the US government poses to internet security. Unlike most who share these concerns, Zuckerberg has a means of communicating them. “I’ve called President Obama to express my frustration,” he reassured us.
David Cameron would also like us to know that he has the President on speed dial, judging by the much-mocked “phone selfie” he tweeted last week. For the benefit of those who missed the mick-taking from Twitter users (including actor Patrick Stewart and comedian Rob Delaney), the original picture showed the Prime Minister on the phone with a theatrically sombre facial expression. The accompanying text read: “I’ve been speaking to @BarackObama about the situation in Ukraine. We are united in condemnation of Russia’s actions.”
At least Cameron or, more accurately, the team of junior spin doctors who run his Twitter account, found the subsequent meme amusing. A few days later, @DavidCameron followed up by tweeting Patrick Stewart a picture of the PM with Bill Clinton. “Talking to another US President, this time face to face, not on the phone,” it said, thus demonstrating that the point had been entirely missed. It wasn’t the phone people found risible, it was Cameron’s try-hard attempt to convey a statesmanlike ease.
Still, the phone selfie mimicry must have made a pleasant change from the usual volley of badly spelt obscenities which ping back at any tweet from the PM’s office. Or, indeed, any social media remark made by any high-profile individual. In Oh Do Shut Up, Dear!, Mary Beard’s programme on the public voice of women, scheduled for broadcast on BBC Four, the classics professor makes, in passing, an interesting suggestion. We all know that women are subject to online verbal abuse, but perhaps misogyny is merely the form. Perhaps the root cause is an increasing frustration with the limits of social media.
People once believed – and were encouraged to do so – that being able to tweet their elected representative directly, to join a Facebook group or to sign an online petition would give them a louder voice in our democracy. Now we know that speaking up and being heard are two different things. Unless you happen to be the bloke who said “Make it so” with such authority on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Prime Minister is unlikely even to read your tweet, never mind to act on it.
Social media does have the potential to aid grassroots democracy, but more often it simply acts as a bigger podium for the powerful few, while everyone else is just there to pad out the audience numbers. Note that when powerful men like Cameron or Zuckerberg want to be heard, they may turn to social media to boast about their influence, but actually to exercise said influence? That requires a telephone. The message, whatever the medium, is clear: when I speak, important people listen.
As for the man on the other end of the line, this week President Obama took to his own online podium, a webisode of the satirical talk show Between Two Ferns. He wanted to encourage those elusive millennials to sign up for affordable healthcare, but there was also a secondary message to broadcast to citizens. When the host, comedian Zach Galifianakis said he was “off the grid” for fear that the government would be checking up on him, Obama took the opportunity to set him straight: “First of all, Zach, no one’s interested in your texts.”
This is the ego-bruising news that governments have been trying, gently, to break to us for some time, and despite many very legitimate concerns about the extent of state surveillance, it still rings true. The real horror of digital life is not that all your thoughts and opinions are out there, online for governments to observe and act on. It’s that they’re out there, online and, for the most part, no one’s interested.