Wednesday, 19 September 2018

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,

 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Footsore But Hopeful, Despite So Much Horror.

We went to the People’s Assembly March in London on Saturday and had a great time. So many people, so many conversations: it was like an ambulatory night in the world’s friendliest pub without the booze. I have, at last, heard Jeremy Corbyn speak live, and it was a belter, but we also heard Diane Abbot, Suggs, and, though the tone was triumphant and optimistic, it was overshadowed by many horrors: prominent among them, the Grenfell Tower massacre, although the speaker who talked about anti-muslim hate crime left me devastated by her description of the recent acid attack, of which I hadn’t yet been aware. Excuse a little outburst: SICK BASTARDS!

Perhaps most depressing for the long-term, however, is the drift towards fascism represented by Theresa May’s £1.5 Billion bribe to the DUP to prop up her discredited regime. Speaker after speaker pointed out the hypocrisy of it, and how it lays bare the lie of austerity, particularly coming, as it does, in the same week that the imploding government managed to strap itself together to vote down the repeal of the 1% pay cap for public sector workers. For me, though, it shows that the swivel-eyed fascist is determined to hang on, to do the maximum damage, and ignore the pain her illegitimate government is doing.

I want to write about some things that happened on the march, including the conversations I had, but it is a work day. For now, I’ll leave you with another cartoon. Theresa May is an open target for satire, and our political cartoonists are not missing.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Debeaked.

This morning I deactivated my Twitter account.

I feel strange.

I have only been using it regularly for a couple of months. I set up my account in 2015, so that I could keep up with the rapid and exciting changes within the Labour Party. Then Facebook took over, and I largely ignored it. After deleting my Facebook account, I had a blessed period of no social media activity whatsoever. I think of this as a golden era. I might have been a little out of the loop about some things, but I was very productive. My work performance improved and I read more, and blogged with a little more depth.

Then, two months ago (just two months!) our supreme leader called a ‘snap’ general election. The ‘common sense’ view was that Labour would roll over and die. It didn’t work out that way. Like an awful lot of other people, I leapt into enthusiastic action, and my dormant Twitter account was a major tool of my involvement, although not the only tool. I set up a webpage within this site, and blogged about the election campaign on the Island, and I leafleted and marched and went to rallies, and I had a whale of a time, and we achieved a result that no one had predicted.

However, it was not a victory, or a clear-cut loss. My intention had been to shut my Twitter account on the day the election result was announced, but I was hooked and it felt -feels- as though the battle goes on.. I had gathered over sixty followers in under a month and I was enjoying the instant gratification of pontificating, congratulating and dismissing people on a public forum. I think, on the whole, I was in control of my tone. I certainly continued to gather followers and likes and retweets: all the psychic gratification of a system built around conditioned response, but I also was getting dragged in, in the way we love to see others dragged in, to the twitchy, snarly arse-sniffing of a social-media bubble.

Yesterday, I posted a comment about the odious, racist, right-wing ‘commentator’ Melanie Phillips and my sister took exception, suggesting that my use of the word ‘shrill’ was gendered. Now, I don’t regret lashing out at a privileged, fascist conspiracy-theorist. Indeed, I so dislike Phillips that I had trouble, for an hour or two, accepting that my sister had a point. Phillips uses a form of rich-people’s victimy hysteria as a cover for her selfish, spoilt vitriol, and I feel justified in despising her, but I was in danger of taking – indeed, I did take – the ugliness of my subject as an excuse for behaviour or, at least, language, that was as inconsiderate of decency as the poison spouted by the person I was attacking. As Phillips’ racist hatred has proved, words can have consequences. And, with social media, even the most inconsequential, trivial and apparently anonymous voice is only one careless tweet away from personal disaster.

The medium, social media, had shaped my behaviour. It was too easy to publish, albeit to under a hundred people, directly, language of which, in the cold light of day, I was ashamed. Twitter didn’t even have Facebook’s one redeeming virtue, that it facilitates discussion. On Twitter, you are constantly striving for the punchline: the killing blow, without going through the intermediate and potentially enriching process of an exchange of views. It had to end, and so I clicked deactivate, and am now back to being an isolated blogger, publishing my thoughts to the void, and to Diaspora, which, while it doesn’t share all Twitter and Facebook’s failings, cannot, in its restraint, provide quite the same interconnectedness.

However, if you are reading this and would like to keep up with my posts or even engage with me without signing up to this site, you might want to look at Diaspora. It uses a distributed model, and a hub can be set up on any server, which I would like to do some time. For now, I have joined a hub run by the developers, and have come across quite a few interesting people. It is not so compulsive, and it is a little quiet, but it is there.

You can join by clicking this symbol:

I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Monday, 5 June 2017

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Monday, 29 May 2017

Voters’ Complicity

Watch this. My own wife thinks this is the greatest moral reason for voting Labour: the cuts against disabled people and the cruel, relentless pressure upon them over the last seven years have really been akin to state cleansing of vulnerable people. I know, from Amanda’s study of the issue, that this woman is not exaggerating.

Watch this, now:

Then this:

 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Humanity

The Tories Have Quietly-and stupidly-Made This An Election About Animal Welfare

Theresa May’s control of her party and its weird, outlying constituencies, is weak. This has been clearest in the way in which she has made tactically stupid concessions to some very nasty groups. Most tellingly, her leaked private promise to a master of hounds to offer a free vote on repealing the ban on hunting with hounds has angered a lot of people. Just as ugly is her promise to the antique-dealing lobby to water down to uselessness the proposed international ban on trading in ivory. In contrast, Labour’s manifesto proposes sweeping and effective new oversight of animal welfare in this country (scroll down to section headed “Animal Welfare”) and international cooperation to improve the human and non-human environment (see the section marked “Diplomacy” for Labour’s commitment to safeguarding the Paris Treaty). If you are disgusted by this and this (WARNING: images of animal suffering), vote Labour.

“Tactical” Voting on the Isle of Wight: Napalming Your Own Front Line

If anything has depressed me more than the sight of the Prime Minister -THE U.K.’S PRIME MINISTER-, unravelling in plain view, over this election, it has been the continuing triumph of stupidity over consideration that I have encountered when talking to people.

On the Island, apart from the gross lies about Jeremy Corbyn’s peacemaking efforts in the Northern Ireland conflict, the greatest expression of that stupidity and lack of effort that people put into this most important of decisions is the belief that they can be clever by voting ‘tactically’.

Let’s put aside the fact that tactical voting is a lie. If you really wanted to vote tactically to dislodge the Tories on the Isle of Wight, you would vote UKIP, but then you would probably go to hell, which is not a good deal. However, for reasons I will outline here, the Green Party has decided to put around the mathematically moronic argument that a vote for them would increase the likelihood of beating the Tories here, and a lot of people have just gone, “Oh, cool”, and not examined that spurious claim for the few milliseconds it would take to expose its absurdity.

The Green Party, thanks to a particular set of historic peculiarities, beat Labour by just over 400 votes in 2015, but, as Julian Critchley has said, they have made those 400 votes do a lot of heavy lifting over the last two years.

Anyway, the Greens think they can get a second place on the Island this time, and they are attempting to make inroads into the Labour vote, although I have seen little evidence of them being successful: I’ve met one confirmed Green voter and he was, I think, stoned. Do not be deceived by Green propaganda: they are attacking Labour: in Norwich, in Cambridge, in Bristol and a number of other Labour target seats, they are attempting to build their profile by riding the coattails of Labour candidates. For them, the Island, a Tory seat, is a fig leaf: their opportunistic attempt to say that they are taking on the Conservatives. Success for them does not mean winning the seat, but looking as though they are a real alternative, which they’re not. In the unlikely event that they maintain their fluke 2015 vote, they will simply embed even deeper the Tory domination of the Island.

The only chance we have of unseating the Tories on the Island, and in the wider U.K., is by concentrating the left-of-Tory vote. Tory voters are tribal. For them, the electoral map is a two party system. I’m not saying that is a good thing, but under our present system, it is the truth. One of the most striking peculiarities of this unusual election campaign is the extent to which the Tories’ vote is slipping: on social care, on animal rights, on young people’s issues, the Tories have scored massive own-goals and their voters are actually leaving them; something that hasn’t happened since 1997. It is extremely unlikely that Conservative voters will go to minority parties, particularly if that party is as extremist as the Green Party. With the collapse of the Lib-Dems, it is Labour that provides a safe and meaningful vote for issues-led, conscientious former Tory voters and for orphaned former Lib-Dems.

If you genuinely like what the Greens say and are voting Green as a matter of honest conscience, I’ve got no argument with you. However, to vote Green, thinking that you are somehow concentrating your electoral fire on the Tories, is just ignorant. It is the tactical equivalent of napalming your own front line. It is a vote for Theresa May.

If you want to get rid of the Tories, VOTE LABOUR.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Democracy Matters.

We went to the event at Northwood House in Cowes last night, to hear Julian Critchley speak again. There had been some debate about whether to cancel, but the decision to resume campaigning was, I believe, correct. We held a minute’s silence, and then Julian expressed what we have all been thinking: terrorism and the even more dangerous fear of terrorism must not stop democracy.

I didn’t have the heart or the time to blog after Tuesday morning’s news. As much as I know that children in Libya, Syria, the Yemen and Iraq are being murdered horrible every day with the complicity of the British state, the Manchester bombing was still a horrible blow. I am not immune to tribalism, and I feel the sense of shock, as well as a renewed pride in the British people, who are, by and large, responding with reason and love, rather than division and hatred. My hope is that the onslaught of lies and filth that the right wing press are spewing isn’t sticking; that people have finally seen through the militarised establishment and are rejecting their lies.

Theresa May was home secretary for five years. She has run down the police force (using her default contrived tone of crusading necessity to justify it) and then she has made a huge strategic blunder, looks as though she might lose the election, and is using the murder of children to justify putting the army on the streets and shutting down democracy for the better part of a week. It feels surreal. This morning, I see stories about them arming G4S, and letting them loose: the evil, incompetent demagogue wants to hire mercenaries from a company from which her husband profits and give them armed power over British citizens.

…the evil, incompetent demagogue wants to hire mercenaries from a company from which her husband profits and give them armed power over British citizens.

An excellent blog, which I recommend, posted this graphic on social media yesterday. It sums up the situation perfectly.

And, how is it, whenever MI6 drops the ball, it’s always in an election year? They’re fighting a couple of hundred disaffected onanists in bedsits, not the wermacht. What do we pay them for?