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,

 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Under The Hammer

A hammer, under which I am.

I need to take stock.

I’m not sure I really have the time to maintain this blog anymore. The part of it that matters to me most, the book reviews, take a day to write, at least, and, lately, a spare day has not been available.

Work, like a noxious gas, expands to fill all space. My job is supposed to be part time – twenty-four hours per week – but it is not. I gave up the memory group work last month, so that I had more time to keep up with admin for my teaching job, but I seem to have even less time this year, with large classes and an enrolment and assessment system that demands huge amounts of repetitive paperwork.

Nevertheless, I am keeping up with that, and my learners seem, for the most part, happy. With the first half term over, my classes are making progress: we will be entering the English learners for reading exams for the end of term and I am optimistic that it will be a successful round of assessments. In maths, my classes are progressing well through the basic calculation material and we will be able to get on to application before Christmas.

Besides work, however, I have started an Open University course in Science, Technology and Maths. I am hoping to progress to a computing and IT degree next year. I wanted to improve my maths knowledge to underpin my teaching, but am also thinking ahead: I don’t want to be trapped in this job until I drop, as it is quite physically demanding. I have to cart large amounts of paperwork, books and a laptop around to different venues, put out tables, and am on my feet for two hours at a time as I teach. Even the act of crouching beside a desk as I guide a learner is something that I will not be able to do for many more years. I am fit enough, but my feet aren’t great and the aches and pains of middle age are beginning to catch up with me.

So, I thought that an IT degree, finished before I’m sixty, might offer me a few options. It is a sort of interest of mine: I am dubious about the mainstream methods of communication and would like to be able to set up my own channels. Not being on Facebook and Twitter is a major impediment to participation in some things, particularly politics and social events, but I sense that their high water marks may be about to pass. I would like to keep up with the tech, but not be dependent upon having to pay through the nose for new machines every time things change. For that, I need better skills in open source software, and for that, I need training.

So far, the OU course is only two weeks old and is, mostly, about study skills and a bit of environmental science. It’s an access course, so it’s about preparing learners for degree study. I’ve learnt a little bit, but not been seriously challenged yet. However, an upcoming task is to master a scientific calculator, which I am both dreading and looking forward to.

I intended to do that yesterday, but Ubuntu released its new version on Thursday and, like a fool, I set my desktop computer to upgrade on Friday. I should have remembered that every upgrade means I am dazzled into tinkering with my set-up.

Ubuntu with Unity and Buuf icon theme

That is particularly true of this upgrade, which is quite a fundamental change. Ubuntu has reverted to a Gnome Desktop, which is a shame in some ways. I have come to like the Unity desktop, but its rationale has been superseded by developments. The huge advantage of Gnome is its maturity and its integrated applications. Yesterday, I spent most of the day changing applications: I have, for instance, removed Evolution email and Calendar, because Gnome comes with a lovely calendar app and works beautifully with the simple but superb Geary email app.

I also set up back ups, for the first time. I have relied upon an external hard drive for keeping copies of things, but it is old and becoming more of a risk than a safeguard. Last year, in a fit of optimism, I bought a 1TB hard drive and a caddy in which to run it. It is now almost full with a full set of Deja-Dup files and, if my six-year-old desktop suffers a catastrophic failure, I should have some recourse. I’d like to set up a Nextcloud server to be a secondary backup, but that takes time, resources and knowledge: all in short supply. Without those qualities, it takes money, and I really can’t afford to rent a cloud service: I’m already paying nearly £200 per year to keep this site running.

So, work and computers are my main time suckers. What else?

Well, Amanda, very skillfully, has organised the renovation of our kitchen. We went over to Ikea in Southampton on a couple of beautiful days this summer, and bought nearly two grands worth of boxes, which are currently piled up in our dining room. Last week, a very nice electrician did the wiring of the kitchen, although I think he’s done one fewer sockets than we asked for, which could mean I will be stuck with making a choice between the kettle and music when I’m cooking.

So, this half term break has a task hanging over it: assembling and installing kitchen units, getting it finished off by various trades people who know what they’re doing, and decorating the kitchen. I loathe DIY.

The other time killer is the bloody dog. She is a sweet enough animal, and I do have moments of adoration, but, Oh God! What a fucking palaver owning a dog is! As dogs go, she’s not that noisy, but there’s just that constant inquisitive presence, demanding attention, whenever I move around the house. The house smells of dog, and the carpets all need deep cleaning because she whines so much in the morning that we don’t know when she’s whining to go out for a piss and when she’s just whining because we’re not in the same room as her.

Amanda and Tia in Firestone Copse, September 2017

Having said that, the walks are nice. We went to Firestone Copse on Friday and had a really good wander. She can be let off the lead now, which means Amanda and I can talk, when Amanda’s not trying to turn the whole thing into a ‘training session’. On days when long walks aren’t possible, we are lucky to have two recreation grounds within five minutes’ walk. Also, I have got into the practice of taking Tia up to Osborne House if Amanda wants a sleep in the afternoon and I’ve finished work. Dogs have to be kept on leads there, but Tia’s happy enough sniffing around. The grounds are beautiful and I get an hour of daydreaming. We wander along the valley walk path, through Prince Albert’s landscaped park, down to the beach, and then back up through the woods, past the cottage and along the top field. We have had quite a lot of good autumn weather this year, although it has been punctuated by extreme bizarreness, and it has been lovely to have a reason to get out and enjoy it.

So, yes, I am busy. Having laid it all out here, though, it sounds less awful than it has seemed. I have a lot to be grateful for, really, even if it does include a bloody dog. The cat’s adapted; so shall I.

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.