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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.

Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University