A Polemic About Social Media And Political Campaigning

Preamble

A month or so back, a friend of mine who suffers from long-term, severe mental illness was attacked by a group of boys on her estate. They took photographs of that attack and posted them on social media.

They are pretty much immune from prosecution, thanks to the ‘viral’ response to their post. Granted, they are now pariahs in their close-knit community, and their ugly, stupid act will follow them into their adulthood, cropping up whenever they attempt to make any public progress in their lives. If you believe in mob-justice, then justice might be said to have been done. The state, however, because of the illegal publication of their identities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is powerless to take action against them. It can only attempt to protect them from the self-aggrandizing vigilantiism to which they have opened themselves by their use of social media and their grotesque immaturity. The legitimate, accountable, democratically-authorised legal system has been short-circuited by a foreign-owned capitalist monopoly that uses the everyday indignities of humanity as grist to its algorithms and regards legal and democratic structures as barriers to wealth creation and the self-actualisation of the cleverest, luckiest and most ammoral elite in history.

I saw my friend last weekend. She is terrified. She is not engaging with the community which piously leapt to her defense after years of treating her as a local embarrassment, and she thinks the police are trying to victimise her: their inability to give her a clear course of legal remedy for her ordeal has confused the issue beyond her ability to engage with it. She is also mesmerised by her Facebook feed, which seems to be confirming her long-standing belief that the world is purposed towards her destruction. Horribly, I think that her fear that the hatred towards the boys will swing back to her may be justified. That is the nature of restless, self-righteous, technologically-enabled groupthink.

The rule of law is a mainstay of democracy. Facebook undermines that rule. It is inherently anti-democratic.

A Short History of Social Media and Political Campaigning

The 2015 Labour Leadership Poll was a triumph for people who sought to manipulate social media in the service of meaningful political change: what Jeremy Corbyn called, “…a thirst for something more communal, more participative.”[1]

By the 2017 general election, however, the political promise of the medium had begun to be diminished by forces other than the well-directed groundswell of public feeling that had empowered the Elect Corbyn for Leader movement. I am not an unquestioning fan of Momentum, but I think that the campaign to elect Corbyn as leader was a model of how to use social media to a positive purpose. What they achieved in ‘15 was to break the ‘echo chamber’ or bubbling effect of Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms, by pulling in unsympathetic friends of sympathisers, and engaging them in debate and exposing them to sincere voices of political hope.[2] By the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and by 2017, the social media companies had realised that this was a loophole in their control of users’ media consumption and had adjusted.

Before Facebook became a publicly quoted company, focussed on advertising spend, it had been chasing engagement over content control, powering for growth, and there was a certain freedom of expression allowed to its users. By 2016, it was chasing the control of what its users were seeing to a far greater extent, refining their offering to advertisers and data-purchasers and trying to present a soothing, ‘mimetic’ (ie, reflective, flattering) experience to users which would make viewing Facebook a comfortable and reinforcing experience to which people would return without worry.[3] That is why they bubble you. It’s not a service. It’s a mechanism of control.

Furthermore, the sophistication of the JeremyForLeader campaign, alongside the Occupy movment and the lessons learned from The Arab Spring movements, had caught the attention of other forces, both within the U.K. and outside it. Academic studies translated to media management policies[4] which were adopted by right-wing forces[5] and foreign intelligence services[6] to undermine the impact of organised popular campaigns. Populism swings in many directions.

In short, the glory days are over for democrats who use social media. An open technology -the internet- that was designed to release knowledge, communication and democratic access from the establishment gatekeepers who had directed public debate since at least the 1850s[7], has been co-opted by a new capitalist, plutocratic, neo-liberal elite, to bind its customers into a tower of Babel, in which coherent exchange of ideas is anathema, labelled as TL:DNR.

The Limits of ‘Privacy’ Settings

Know this: a private Facebook group is not private. It is exclusive, in that the labour put into it is restricted to those who choose to sign up to it. This means that it serves as a mechanism of exclusion of those people who, for whatever reason, choose to not participate in social media. However, that ad hominen rant against a comrade to which you succumbed during the Owen Smith leadership challenge is available to the right level of advertiser, if they’re searching for dirt on the Labour Party during an election campaign.

And that situation assumes that you’re wise enough to restrict your rants to a ‘private’ group, and to not share your breathless prose in a moment of vainglory to your main feed. Or that all the members of the group have the best wishes of the party at heart. Or that the administrators have kept up with the constant changes to Facebooks privacy rules, and that the group is still actually set to ‘private’, rather than just ‘closed’. Or that no one is taking screenshots for malicious purposes.

But you know that, really. How else do the rumours of ‘green infiltrators’ get started?

Unless you delete your account -not just a single comment, but your whole account- and forego logging back into it for two weeks after you have deleted it, everything you have ever uploaded, written, sniped or ‘shared’, is sitting in a folder on Facebook’s servers, available to the highest bidder, and linked to you. Have you ever enjoyed watching someone try to backtrack on an opinion they expressed five years ago in a drunken moment? It could be you. Only the safety of the crowd protects you.

The Great Con

There is a rather mischievous argument doing the rounds in internet freedom circles that claims China actually has more politically effective internet access than the free West. I consider that nonsense: Chinese citizens have definitely scored real successes in changing government policy through internet activism, but they’ve been pretty well educated in staying away from economic, central government and foreign affairs topics. However, the state is not the only enemy of freedom, and in the West, it is not even the most powerful.

As John Lanchester puts it:

Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens…Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.[8]

The sight of large chunks of a socialist party beavering away, providing free labour to create content for a few American monopolist corporations fills me with despair. It is as if the Chartists had had their discussions about citizens’ rights in the tearoom of the House of Lords. In the light of what we know about how Facebook played (or, as they claim, were played, during) the last American presidential election, we should understand that they have worked out how to neutralise justice movements’ energy and commitment. They want to keep you happy, yes; that is why there are cat videos, but angry people click as well, and division is incredibly easy to sow, if you know where to lay the seeds, and you own the field.

Know this also: social media, particularly Facebook, is as much a product of manipulative psychological theory as it is a product of technology. Zuckerberg actually pursued a dual degree at Harvard: Computing and Psychology. The mechanisms written into Facebook behavioural algorithms are rooted in the theories of conditioned response which underpin the most nakedly dishonest branches of marketing, propoganda and behavioural control. The desire for a ‘like’ or a notification of any kind on a social media app or browser window, is the same conditioned twitch seeking content-free reward as is used by the designers of gambling machines. It is the behaviour of the rat that has been trained to associate a button with pleasure and will starve to death seeking the signifier of that pleasure, even when the actual reward has been removed from the process.

Von Clausewitz said that armies lose when they try to re-fight the last war. The limited, almost-victory of the 2017 election was successful, as far as it went, not because of social media, but because Labour concentrated on what mattered: having control of its content and being clear about what it stood for. The brief flowering of commercial social media as a medium of democratic liberation is over. We need to create our own fields.

We need a CLP Facebook feed, but it should be treated as a shop window, only being populated with content approved by the CLP, in a professional manner: another method among many to spread our Labour ideals to the public. It should be curated, nurtured and controlled.

We do not need a public kvetching arena, which is what our ‘private’ Facebook group is.

Get off Facebook. Start creating our own discussion groups on secure media that we own: Diaspora is a good first step, but a Rocket chat server would be more instinctive for most users and would be easy to set up, and cheap to run, and we would own it in a way we would not own a Facebook page. It would also be free of the pressure to keep up, to keep chasing the approval of an algorithm. It would remove the competitive fury inherent in social media slavery, and it would allow us to discuss again, instead of constantly arguing.

Bibliography

Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power (1st ed), OR Books, New York & London, 2016,

Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.  https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product

Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.

Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6

Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006

 

Endnotes

  1. Cited in Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, (1st ed) OR Books, New York & London, 2016, p143
  2. Nunns, p251
  3. Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.
  4. Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.
  5. Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6
  6. Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006.
  7. Alcott & Geentzkow
  8. Lanchester,

 

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