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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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Leave campaigners are doing down Britain's influence in Europe

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in the EU.

Last week the Leave campaign's Priti Patel took to the airwaves to bang on about the perils of EU regulation, claiming it is doing untold damage to small businesses in the UK. Let's put aside for one minute the fact that eight in ten small firms actually want to stay in the EU because of the huge benefits it brings in terms of trade and investment. Or the fact that the EU has cut red tape by around a quarter in recent years and is committed to doing more. Because the really startling thing Patel said was that these rules come to us "without the British government having a say." That might be forgivable coming from an obscure backbencher or UKIP activist. But as a government minister, Priti Patel knows full well that the UK has a major influence over all EU legislation. Indeed, she sits round the table when EU laws are being agreed.

Don't take it from me, take it from Patel herself. Last August, in an official letter to the House of Lords on upcoming EU employment legislation, the minister boasted she had "worked closely with MEPs to influence the proposal and successfully protected and advanced our interests." And just a few months ago in February she told MPs that the government is engaging in EU negotiations "to ensure that the proposals reflect UK priorities." So either she's been duping the Parliament by exaggerating how much influence she has in Brussels. Or, as is perhaps more likely, she's trying to pull the wool over the British people's eyes and perpetuate a favourite myth of the eurosceptics: that the UK has no say over EU rules.

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in Europe. We have the most votes in the EU Council alongside France, Germany and Italy, where we are on the winning side 87 per cent of the time. The UK also has a tenth of all MEPs and the chairs of three influential European Parliament committees (although admittedly UKIP and Tory sceptics do their best to turn their belief the UK has no influence in Europe into a self-fulfilling prophecy). UKIP MEPs aside, the Brits are widely respected by European counterparts for their common sense and expertise in areas like diplomacy, finance and defence. And to the horror of the French, it is English that has become the accepted lingua franca in the corridors of power in Brussels.

So it's no surprise that the UK has been the driving force behind some of the biggest developments in Europe in recent decades, including the creation of the single market and the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe. The UK has also led the way on scrapping mobile roaming charges from next year, and is now setting the agenda on EU proposals that will make it easier to trade online and to access online streaming services like BBC iPlayer or Netflix when travelling abroad. The irony is that the Europe of today which Eurosceptics love to hate is very much a British creation.

The Leave campaign like to deride anyone who warns of the risks of leaving the EU as "talking down Britain." But by denying the obvious, that the UK has a major role in shaping EU decisions, they are the ones guilty of doing our country down. It's time we stood up to their defeatist narrative and made the case for Britain's role in Europe. I am a proud patriot who wants the best for my country, and that is why like many I will be passionately making the case to remain in the EU. Now is not the time to leave, it's time to lead.