How Twitter distorts messages

I caused a right old Twitterstorm last weekend by tweeting that as a healthy 70 year old who can run a 5k Parkrun in under 29 minutes, I should not be told not to go out for 4 months. A blanket ban on any over 70 going out seemed, at the time, what the government was envisaging. In quotes in the Daily Telegraph and an interview on Marr, Matt Hancock appeared to suggest that this was about to be announced by government.

In the event, this proved not to be the case. My tweet received 8,000 likes, elicited 3,000 responses, and I learnt what it is like to cause these social media outbursts. It was interesting to note that at first most of the comments were favourable, largely because they came from my followers and their contacts. However, as my tweet was read by people who were not necessarily sympathetic to my world view, particularly after it was retweeted by certain right wing interests, the response was uniformly hostile.

Most of those who posted unpleasant responses often hoping my imminent demise and calling me names such as ‘gramps’, ‘old timer’ and ‘sad boomer’, had misinterpreted what I had said. I was not advocating, as they suggested, completely ignoring government advice and continuing life as normal. Rather, I was merely stressing that to lock up a large and vulnerable proportion of the population was not a good strategy and that many over 70s, like me, still worked and were very physically active.

But the critics were all too happy to read into my tweet a feeling of self-entitlement and selfishness. I confess, it did sound a bit smug by highlighting my fortunate good health but I was making a crucial point. Indeed, a political journalist friend felt that my tweet ended up influencing government policy by alerting ministers to the downsides of a blanket policy. When the advice was finally published, there was no mention of bans, but merely advise about limiting contacts which, of course, everyone should do.

The trouble with Twitter is that it is very difficult to correct such false impressions. There was no way that i had the time or energy to address all the 3,000 replies to my tweet. Moreover, that would largely be a waste of time as inevitably the worst and most misinformed comments came from people with half a dozen followers or fewer.

Now, of course, we are entering very different times. The likelihood of further restrictions is very high. I would still, however, reiterate my initial point. Stopping people exercising in ways that involve virtually no social contact, such as walking, running and cycling would be counter productive and damage both people’s physical wellbeing – as exercise boosts the immune system – and their mental health. I am not the only one saying this on Twitter and elsewhere. Let’s hope ministers are listening.