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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.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland