As the @EU_Commission Twitter account reminded us today, thirty three years ago the Berlin wall fell and the collapse of Soviet rule began, but I heard no news coverage of those 1989 events for I lived behind four walls in a monastery. There was no internet in those days, nor did we have TV, nor radio nor newspapers. Yet we knew what was happening. When big news happens you hear about it first from other people. You do not need a news service.
When I was still teaching, I needed to keep up with current affairs – particularly for finding Human Geography case study material on topics like migration or Physical Geography case study material on climate change – but in retirement my pursuit of news has been largely political, and to be specific about Brexit and its dire consequences. As my retirement coincided with the People’s Vote campaign to try and limit the damage of Brexit with a second plebiscite, I took on the mantle of the Twitter coordinator for the Veterans 4 Europe group, and I managed to increase the number of account followers massively in a few weeks by providing thoughtful original content, links and good communications. After the dismal collapse of any real public input into the Brexit process and Britain’s exit from the European Union, I gave up using Twitter for a couple of years.
Then recently I returned to Twitter to keep up with political news, since the chaotic period of UK government had become so confusing that the Spanish TV and newspapers were always out-of-date within half an hour! Also I finally dumped BBC radio because it was entirely biased to a Brexiter Tory view of current affairs. But in the Twitterverse, I found my head now became the newsroom that was processing all these incoming bits of information from tweeting journalists. I was no longer a consumer of news but consumed by it, just as I was once consumed by God twenty-four hours a day in the monastery in Worcester and later in the remote abbey of St Martin du Canigou in the Pyrenees in the 1980s-1990s.
In October-November 2022, the arrival of @ElonMusk – in a hostile takeover of Twitter – reminded me of a past experience and it took a while to put my finger on it. Then I saw the analogy. It was like a cult leader coming in and taking over, exerting his power over a regular monastic community. In a week the routines and rules change. The food gets burnt. Our priest confessor – under duress – defies canon law about the seal of the confessional, and shares our inner secrets with the leader, to gain access to our souls. The structure creaks, the stained glass windows start to crack.
It is no idle analogy. I’ve been there: I fled the Communauté des Beatitudes in the Pyrenees 30 years ago and caught a train at Perpignan station via Paris, back to the UK. Years later I saw the French news reports of the criminal trials of the abusive leaders of the charismatic Catholic community that became a cult. Now I’m watching people flee Twitter, as Elon Musk turns it into a fascistic political tool supporting Trump’s attacks on democracy in the USA, with consequences on a global political scale. People are setting up their Mastodon accounts, trying to find time to start all over on a new platform.
It takes many years to form a successful community – be it a monastery or a social media platform – but it is easy to destroy it in a few days or weeks. Above all – going back to my original point here – I’m beginning to wonder: do I really need the news? For it was mainly as a news service that I used Twitter. When big news happens you hear about it first from other people.