15 Minutes of Fame, and a Lifetime of Consequences | Seoirse Duffy

Earlier this week, a political commentator – read, a young person who tweets and occasionally provides vox pop – tweeted to 18,000 followers her dismay at being rejected for a job that she had, only a year prior, stated that the only reason people wouldn’t be able to get would be if they had an illness. The response was a dogpiling of abuse, ranging from people dragging up her old tweets about employability, to tweeting her abuse. She briefly went on private, then public, then private again, then public. Finally, she moved past it. For context; this commentator is in her first year of university, having moved 6 or so hours across the country to study. She is 18-19, she has run for local government, and she is steadfast in her opinions, many of which have been uncharitably described as pandering. This is not an article about defending this political commentator or adding to her abuse. It is instead a plea for us all to step back and ask ourselves how we landed in this position.

In the last few years since the Brexit referendum, we have noticed an uptick in these political commentators: young people, right-wing people, with access to social media accounts or political forums to present their opinions. Some strike it big overnight; some will hone their craft for months to build a base. The end goal is the same: a go-to opinion on the matter of the day, an article ready for publishing – the irony – on what they consider to be topical. In a way, Twitter encourages it through its development of complex circles of users who are political with opinions. Any of us could be the next political commentator. Some of us want to be, some of us want anything but. One viral tweet, one appearance or quote in a publication, could launch a viral following. Maybe an online series, maybe a regular spot on a media outlet. We see young journalists frequently giving their opinions – we want to be that! That is just the difference: being a political commentator isn’t their only job: they’re journalists or researchers, former Westminster staff or somehow connected to “the Bubble”. These new, upcoming young people? Often, none of that.

Where is the safeguarding? Earlier this week, our political commentator tweeted that they were fed up with everything, just a day before tweeting their job rejection. Fundamentally, as a young person, they want social media for what most of us want it for: an outlet for our opinions, but also a well for when we want pity. The difference is that by establishing their positions, the political commentator attracts those who would capitalise on their misfortune. Who is looking out for these adolescents? Are the media organisations they speak out, stepping in to support them? Are their friends, or the blue-tick Twitter accounts they revel in fraternising with, chucking them a message to encourage them to tweet less or filter what they put on their “main” Twitter – assuming they have a private Twitter, and if not, that they should get one – and look for mental health support? 

The answer, it seems, is no. Instead, we are left with a sea of political commentators who get to feel the euphoria when they’re going up – the thousands of likes, the retweets, maybe a soundbite on LBC radio – but who do not know how to cope (as none of us really do) with the harsh and sudden depression that comes with a tide of online exposure and subsequent abuse.

To date, we can only speculate on the toll this actually has on those who find themselves in the limelight at such a young age. However, it is only a matter of time before things get worse. As more and more young people get involved in politics – the Lib Dems recently permitted a 12-year-old to stand for election of their Youth Wing – and as more and more young people join social media, the pot will eventually boil over. People will get hurt. Safeguarding must improve to ensure that fewer young people find themselves suddenly exposed from a pedestal without support, and to provide support for existing young people who have amassed a platform. Some self-awareness would go some way as well.Of course, who am I to say this? Writing in the Mallard, to be published to a platform of people I couldn’t reach with my own Twitter account seems to fundamentally ignore the point. What can I say – I’m a narcissist. As I imagine many people seeking fame and status are; few end up as political commentators for altruistic reasons. But that is exactly what makes this such a high-consequence game: we are blind to the possible consequences of our actions, for the most part. As long as political commentators are allowed to construct a sandcastle out of likes and retweets, we come closer to the day those consequences are realised when the sandcastle comes crumbling down.

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