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Laurie Penny: The energy and efficiency of political Facebook campaigns come at a price

Modern politics and the Facebook paradox.

This weekend, thousands of activists decked themselves in purple ribbons and marched through the streets of London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Oxford and York to demand a change to the British voting system. Large numbers of them had been mobilised through Facebook.

"One of the most prized assets in politics is how many people you can put on the streets or in a room," said Guy Aitchison, organiser of the exuberant Take Back Parliament protest. "Facebook allows campaigns to connect to large numbers of people in a short space of time, meaning that it's easy to organise demonstrations at short notice."

Twenty-three million Britons have Facebook accounts, and the site's organisation of personal profiles and public pages allows citizens, activists, politicians and media pundits to network and share ideas with a semblance of immediate humanity that paper petitions and dry email lists will never capture.

But alongside the obligation to sign over personal data to unknown third parties, campaigns on Facebook are circumscribed by private control of the terms and scope of public debate. The energy and efficiency of Facebook campaigns come with a price.

Given its importance to our lives as a gossip channel, public CV archive, photo album and social calendar, it's easy to forget that Facebook is not an open forum, but a privately owned space. Last week, the University of London Union president, Clare Solomon, had her personal account disabled after setting up the protest group "Can't pay, won't pay: solidarity with the people of Greece".

Other administrators of the group were also banned from the site, and when Solomon attempted to set up a new profile, it vanished within minutes.

"My disappearance concerned my family and friends," said Solomon. "I use Facebook for work and for communicating with activists all over the world who I might not have been able to meet otherwise. Having my account disabled was really inconvenient -- and disconcerting."

 

Speaking for the public

The US campaigns group Racebending was also banned from Facebook this week, after the group's attempts to raise awareness of how Hollywood casts white actors to play characters of colour were deemed "hateful, threatening or obscene" by site censors.

"The page had almost 6,000 members, and was a key way for us to keep in touch with most of our supporters," said a spokesperson for Racebending. Beneath Facebook's placid navy-blue surface of thrown sheep and targeted advertising widgets are intricate strata of digital control, overseen by a private company that has no official responsibility to provide users with an objective place to organise.

"Facebook seems like a giant blackboard where people can write whatever they want, but actually it's privately owned. Nobody has an automatic right to express themselves, and the company is entitled to rub out anything it wants to rub out," explains Kate, an IT systems administrator.

"Alongside those who don't use the internet at all, there are plenty of technologically minded people, like myself, who are concerned enough about the security of their data not to get involved. It can seem like Facebook represents public opinion, but it doesn't."

Only two-fifths of the UK are regular Facebook users. That you're reading an article on the New Statesman website means that it's likely you're one of them, but contemporary politics is not owned solely by those of us who've filled out the "favourite quotes" section.

While digital activism is constantly creating new, exciting arenas for political involvement, we must be careful not to ascribe too singular an importance to Facebook as a political barometer or organising space.

"Having my account disabled brought home the fact that Facebook is a service run for profit and controlled by those who own it." said Solomon. "We contribute content, and then the company makes money by using our free labour to boost advertising rates.

"I'm planning to transfer myself and my friends over to an open-source software model, where we will have more control."

Facebook is the first click for media outlets wishing to read the writing on the world's playground wall, where undercurrents of political sentiment jostle for space among crude smiley faces and time-worn crushes.

What can seem like the voice of the people is in fact a restricted private channel, compromised by commercial interests. Facebook remains a superlative organising tool, but its relationship to the political zeitgeist is far from simple. In fact, it's complicated.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and feminist activist from London. Her blog, Penny Red, was nominated for this year's Orwell Prize. Her first book will be published later this year by Zero.

 

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories