Sian gets sucked into Facebook

The power of Facebook to the politician plus Ken Livingstone impersonators and other issues

I can hardly fit in writing a blog this week, but I have managed to grab a few minutes away from Facebook to jot a few thoughts down.

For ages and ages I resisted getting involved with this latest manifestation of web 2.0, much as I resisted the lure of a mobile phone for almost a decade. With mobiles I wanted to see if there was any lasting damage to the brain, so I let everyone else be guinea pigs for as long as possible before signing up. I had similar concerns with Facebook but a couple of weeks ago I was persuaded to set up a profile, and now I’m utterly sucked in.

As a politician, Facebook turns out to be a great way to present your views and get feedback from people. Anyone can join your groups and write comments on your ‘wall’ or start a discussion topic (my group Siân for London Mayor has picked up 168 members in just a few weeks, which is lovely) and the ability to post videos lets people see you in flesh talking about their concerns. It all makes producing leaflets to push through letterboxes look rather old school and one-sided.

However, much as I predicted, fiddling around on Facebook can use up a huge amount of time. The trouble is it’s very addictive – you can spend hours checking your ‘friend requests’, touring round the profiles of friends of friends of friends, seeing what groups they belong to and where they went on their holidays. And God help you if you start adding applications.

There are millions of these; mostly ersatz games that use Facebook’s networking capacity to create huge contests between different camps. If you join Facebook, you will quickly be inundated with invitations to take sides in an epic battle between werewolves and vampires, or approached by recruiters from the pirates, ninjas, zombies and jedis. I have been sent gifts ranging from poker chips to fish for my aquarium. I don’t think I can take on any of this responsibility so I’m steering clear of the ‘apps’ for the time being.

On the other hand, the groups on Facebook are a great way to get involved in political mischief. Looking for a group that opposes the mad Thames Gateway motorway bridge, I found one with a ‘related groups’ list showing it mainly included local Conservatives (the list is compiled automatically, based on the other groups members belong to). But, adding it to my groups brought ‘No to the Thames Gateway Bridge’ to the attention of Greens in London so, a couple of dozen new members later, the related groups were ‘Sian for London Mayor’, ‘Census Alert’, ‘Green Party’, ‘Renationalise the British Railway Network’ and ‘Campaign Against Climate Change’. Result! (Although this might change if the Tories decide to fight back.)

You see, it’s very hard not to be competitive about all this. My declared rivals in the London Mayor election next year don’t appear to be up yet officially, but there’s plenty to be jealous of in the meantime. There are literally hundreds of student Boris Johnson fan clubs on Facebook, including ‘Boris for King’, ‘Boris for Pope’ and ‘Boris Johnson for President of the World’, plus about equal numbers of ‘Re-elect Ken’ and ‘Anyone but Ken’ groups.

The most plausible Livingstone impersonator has put all the right details into his profile, but the picture seems to give the game away. Would the real Ken Livingstone have chosen to show himself standing in front of a row of bearskinned royal guards? I beg to quibble, and none of the nineteen ‘Boris Johnsons’ are very convincing either.

Facebook seems a much friendlier place than the internet at large, mainly due to the way it’s arranged in overlapping networks, so there is a danger that our efforts are only reaching natural Green supporters (not a bad thing, initially anyway). All my Facebook friends are pretty wholesome, so I rarely see anything dodgy, but I got a bit of a shock when a troll appeared on a Green Party group and posted something nasty (since removed by us). I went to have a look at his profile, and a whole world of unpleasant interest groups and right-wing nonsense was revealed, all of which I’ll continue to avoid in the future.

On the whole I’m enjoying myself at the moment, but two improvements I’d made immediately are for the admins to kick off the BNP’s groups and to heed our call to list ‘green’ as your political view (the closest their US-focused drop-down menu has at the moment is ‘very liberal’ but we have a campaign of emailing them to persuade them to change it).

These examples show Facebook’s one major drawback. Like many successful web ventures, Facebook’s success comes from its ubiquity; I can see the day when nearly everyone is on it, and this does put a lot of power into the hands of one company. I’d be very reluctant to put any truly personal information into my Facebook profile because of the US-based nature of the database and the fact that the Patriot Act means their intelligence services have easy access.

Things like not being able to list your political beliefs are relatively trivial, but the rest of the world probably has greater problems with its monolingual English interface. Britain also has to put up with enormous ‘local networks’ at the moment, with a ‘London’ network of little use compared with the ability to create one for each borough or neighbourhood. The power to do this (or to choose a fascist-free network) lies with the developers, not the users, so I’m looking forward to the Son of Facebook being a peer-to-peer system that is far more adaptable and lets us choose how we share this information and where it goes.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Julia Rampen
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Donald Trump's inauguration marks the start of the progressive fightback

Opponents to Donald Trump and Brexit are reaching across the Atlantic. But can they catch up with the alt-right? 

In the icy lemon sunshine of 20 January 2017, a group of protestors lined London’s Millennium Bridge, drumming. Two scarf-clad organisers held placards that spelt “Open Hearts”. 

Protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th US President might seem like a waste of time when you could spend the day under the covers instead. But the protestors were upbeat. Sophie Dyer, a part-time student and graphic designer I met on the bridge, told me her group were “trying to avoid mentioning his name”. 

When I asked her what had catalysed her interest in political activism, she said: “Everything. 2016.”

One of the trademarks of the times is the way the alt-right learnt from each other, from Donald Trump crowning himself “Mr Brexit”, to France’s Marine Le Pen sipping coffee at Trump Towers. Now, progressives are trying to do the same. 

The protestors were part of the Bridges Not Walls protests. Ten hours before I stepped onto the Millennium Bridge, New Zealand activists had already got started. As the sun rose over Europe, banners unfurled from bridges in Dubai, France, Spain, Sweden and Norway. In the UK, there were also protests in other cities including Edinburgh and Oxford.

The demonstrations are about Trump – the name is a direct rebuke to his pledge to build a wall on the southern border – but they are no less about Brexit, or, as environmental campaigner Annabelle Acton-Boyd put it, “right-wing populist movements”. 

Acton-Boyd said she had come to show solidarity with American friends who opposed Trump.

But she added: “It is about coming together supporting each other geographically, and across different [political and social] movements.” 

In the election post-mortem, one of the questions confronting progressives is whether voters and activists were too focused on their own issues to see the bigger picture. This varies from controversial debates over the role of identity politics, to the simpler fact that thousands of voters in the rustbelt who might have otherwise helped Clinton opted for the Green candidate Jill Stein.

But while Bridges Not Walls paid homage to different causes - LGBTQ rights were represented on one bridge, climate change on an other - each  remained part of the whole. The UK Green Party used the event to launch a “Citizens of the World” campaign aimed at resettling more child refugees. 

Meanwhile, Trump and his European allies are moving fast to redefine normal. Already, media critics are being blocked from presidential press conferences, divisive appointments have been made and the intelligence authorities undermined. 

As US opponents of Trump can learn from those in the UK resisting a hard Brexit, resisting this kind of right-wing populism comes at a cost, whether that is personal infamy a la Gina Miller, or the many hours spent dusting off books on constitutional law. 

The question for transatlantic progressives, though, is whether they are prepared to leave the morning sunshine for the less glamorous elbow grease of opposition – the late night email exchanges, the unpaid blog posts, the ability to compromise - that will be needed to bend the arc of history back towards justice. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.