Febrile rumours and canny games

Short of throwing himself at Brown's feet, it is hard to imagine what more Miliband might do to show

How easy it is to conjure up a story about splits and dissent in the ranks of the Labour Party at the moment. Even before they appeared in print, David Miliband's thoughts for this week's NS on the "I-can generation" were being interpreted as a political philosophy to challenge Gordon Brown's. Every utterance from a cabinet minister is now scrutinised for signs of disloyalty to Brown, which makes these exquisitely dangerous times for the Chancellor.

The official line from the Environment Secretary is that he is "flattered" by the attention he is receiving as the youthful poster boy of the über-Blairites grouped around Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn, although he cannot have made it plainer that he will not be standing. In the pages of this magazine last September, Miliband was categorical that he would not be standing as leader or deputy. His every sentence was peppered with the name "Brown" as the only credible candidate for the top job.

Miliband said the same to parliament after the Budget, but this has simply had the effect of fanning the flames of speculation. It was noted that he apparently left himself "wiggle room" by not spelling out his intention in words of one syllable. It is difficult to imagine what more he might do - short of throwing himself at the feet of the Chancellor, as an act of fealty in the style of a medieval lord paying homage to his king.

And yet Miliband's lengthy exposition on the future of the centre left (see page 26) in Westminster's political magazine of choice is a serious statement of intent. If it is not a bid for the highest office then it is something close to it. Odds are shortening on him becoming Brown's chancellor or foreign secretary.

Brown knows he could stop the speculation immediately if he began offering cabinet posts around to Blairites. This point may arrive sooner than Brown would like, such is the state of fevered speculation as the local elections approach. For every real rebellion, insurgency and challenge to his coronation as leader, there are a dozen false leads, half-truths and malicious rumours.

During one particularly intense period, I heard on good authority from one source close to Miliband and another at the Treasury that Clarke was planning to declare he would run in the Labour leadership contest. The latest rumour evaporated, however, as quickly as it surfaced. I later heard from a source in the Clarke camp (well, Charles Clarke, actually) that he was definitely saying nothing about his leadership ambitions until there was a vacancy at the top.

Real challenge

Like Miliband, Clarke could yet become a genuine threat to Brown, unlike the other ultra-Blairites, whom one Brown aide described to me as "a bunch of apparatchiks defined by their self-indulgence and arrogance". Despite all the talk of a "virtual" or "underground" challenge from Miliband, Clarke is the real engine of resistance to unopposed transition from Blair to Brown. The Chancellor accepts that if Clarke throws his hat into the ring when Blair stands down it is likely he will receive the 44 Labour MPs' nominations necessary to join the contest.

Clarke remains a substantial figure who commands respect, even among the Chancellor's supporters. Since resigning as home secretary, he has been tirelessly touring the country with an alternative political programme for Britain, based on his conviction that the constituent parts of the new Labour coalition (the old working class, party activists, Middle England, public sector professionals) have become fragmented and disconnected from the Labour government. Journalists and party activists now receive a weekly email telling of Clarke's latest lecture or article.

Clarke is playing a canny game. Although some were surprised that he threw his lot in with Milburn's 2020 Vision project, which many in Westminster have seen as an attempt to create a party within a party, Clarke has kept his lines of communication to the Chancellor open.

He has had two lengthy meetings with Brown to discuss his ideas. The first of these was just before the launch of the 2020 Vision website. The second was the result of the two men bumping into each other as Clarke was marshalling his ideas on the future of the health service. I am told they had a 40-minute discussion about Clarke's deeply controversial view that the public could be charged for non-essential services.

Miliband knows he would lose his reputation as a man of his word if he launched a challenge now, although he would be the obvious candidate if Brown's premiership was in crisis in a year's time. Clarke, on the other hand, could paradoxically end up playing a positive role in the revival of the party. But to do that he would have to hold back on the personal spite and launch a principled campaign, based on the ideas he has outlined in the past six months. He might even end up back in the cabinet.

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.