Rishi Sunak is not the first politician to share a staged picture of himself. But the response his tweeted image received has surely been the most furious so far. Standing in front of a giant bag of Yorkshire Tea, the Chancellor wrote: ‘Quick Budget prep break making tea for the team. Nothing like a good Yorkshire brew.’ Innocuous stuff, you might think. But not for the Twitter mob.
Incensed left-leaning keyboard warriors have vented their fury at the poor person running the Yorkshire Tea Twitter account for several days now. There have been calls for people to stop buying the brand as a result of its alleged connection with the Tories and the chai-drinking Chancellor.
‘That's me boycotting this brand then. Not because it uses imported tea but because of the Tory scum that forms whenever you make a cup,’ wrote one irate person. ‘I will no longer be buying your tea,’ wrote another.
Yorkshire Tea was eventually compelled to respond. ‘Nothing to do with us – people of all political stripes like our brew. Plus there’s no way we’d intentionally stick ourselves in a Twitter storm on a Friday afternoon. It’s nearly hometime!’
Such incidents have happened before on Twitter, of course. But this demented backlash – which is still continuing, five days on – surely shows how bad things have become.
Yorkshire Tea says it responded to 10,000 tweets in the space of 24 hours. ‘Sue, you're shouting at tea,’ was one memorable response made by the company to an online critic. It is true, of course, that the row has done Yorkshire Tea no harm at all. In fact, if being talked about is the aim of the game, then the brand will be delighted with the wall-to-wall coverage this ongoing argument has generated. And yet I can’t be alone in finding this story deeply depressing and further evidence – if it were needed – of how unbearable Twitter has recently become.
As Yorkshire Tea has been at pains to point out, ‘for anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company – please remember there's a human on the other end of it’. For those running corporate Twitter accounts, from tea brands to train companies, being on the receiving end of abuse is now part of the job. But is that really OK? Would we accept such abuse in any job? It’s unlikely. Yet in the wild west of social media, anything now goes.
In recent weeks, Laurence Fox has quit Twitter, saying the platform has made him depressed. This, of course, came shortly after he tried to push back against the orthodoxy on contentious issues (like race) during his Question Time appearance. Yes, some of his comments were clumsy, such as his point about the casting of a Sikh soldier in the film 1917. But the backlash – as with the response to Sunak’s picture – was out of all proportion with the supposedly original 'offence' which sparked the row.
The implicit plea for compassion in Yorkshire Tea’s message in which it pointed out that Twitter accounts are run by people too – along with Fox’s departure from the site – highlights how things have changed for the worst online. We’re all familiar with the messages to ‘Be Kind’ on the internet, but is anyone actually listening? It seems not. And all too often, it is those who shout the loudest about the need to show respect online who inevitably end up piling on someone they disagree with. Can Twitter be saved from the mob? This Yorkshire Tea row makes me unconvinced it can be. Perhaps Fox was right: it is time to walk away.