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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.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.
 

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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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