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How Jeremy Corbyn won Facebook

Three numbers will help you understand this summer's leadership election. Corbyn has 770,000 fans on Facebook, while Labour has 500,000 - and his rival Owen Smith has 6,600.

Whatever troubles Jeremy Corbyn might have elsewhere, there is one place where he is unambiguously winning: Facebook. His personal page has more than 770,000 “Likes” and even more users will see its content shared by friends, or suggested underneath other articles. In a space where attention is currency, this is a huge achievement. In the week that Theresa May became Prime Minister, Corbyn’s Facebook page reached a third of all UK internet users, according to a source inside Labour’s digital team.

The amplifying – and so potentially distorting – effect of Facebook on public discourse is poorly understood, but it cannot be ignored. The social networking site’s influence, size and revenue are unmatched: while Twitter has 310 million monthly active users, Facebook has 1.65 billion. Two-thirds of Britons use it every month.

The media are waking up to the reality that Facebook is both a conduit for their stories and a rival for their money. Politicians face a similar challenge but their trade-off is this: they get a direct connection to activists and supporters but with the risk of creating insular, self-reinforcing communities. (On the Jeremy Corbyn Facebook page, no one can hear you scream “unelectable”.)

We talk about the “Westminster bubble” but we should talk about the “Facebook bubble”, too. Most of us make friends who are like us in background and political leanings. Facebook’s algorithms give us more of what we have already shown we like. This creates increasingly polarised communities without us even noticing. Unlike when you walk into a petrol station and see the Sun next to the Guardian, on the internet it’s easy to forget that other opinions are possible.

There is another problem that is shared by news media and political parties. “Online, people like people,” is how one campaigner put it to me. Just as star columnists command big money, we have seen a wave of politicians (including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US) whose personal followings cannot be neatly merged with existing members who believe that “the party” transcends any particular leader. “Bernie has blood on his hands,” read a typical comment on one Sanders Facebook page after the senator backed Hillary Clinton.

Thanks to Facebook and the campaign group Momentum, personal supporters of Corbyn have flooded into Labour. His Facebook page has 250,000 more Likes than the Labour Party page, which recently passed the half-million mark. (Angela Eagle’s page has around 18,900 and Owen Smith’s 6,600.) It is a measure of Corbyn’s online success that only 51 per cent of those who were full members at the last election think he is doing a good job. However, he has reshaped the party in his own image, and it now has a pro-Corbyn majority.

How parties deal with this personal style of politics is anyone’s guess. The Tories perhaps do it best: by selecting only two leadership candidates to go to the membership, they ensure that direct democracy is tempered by the parliamentary party.

The “Facebookification” of politics is not all negative. An engaged local MP can create a page for his or her constituency that can bring together thousands of citizens who care passionately about the area. Using online media also helps parties to connect with voters once considered hard to reach, such as young people and those living outside cities. Yet there are downsides, which are scarier because they are largely invisible. The ethnic targeting of adverts that we saw in the London mayoral campaign is easier online, where social networks know almost everything about you. For example, it would be possible to target an anti-immigration message at those in majority-white areas.

Then there is what the behavioural economist Cass Sunstein calls “group polarisation theory”. In closed communities, the louder, more extreme voices dominate; moderates leave; those who remain fall into step with the prevailing direction. That’s how you end up with unofficial Corbyn-supporting pages on which words such as “Zio” (short for “Zionist” and proscribed by Shami Chakrabarti’s review into anti-Semitism in the party) are bandied about, or forums on which suggesting any potential accommodation with the wider electorate on welfare or immigration will have you labelled a “Blairite”, “Tory-lite” or, simply, “traitor”.

Wrapped in with this is a hatred and suspicion of the mainstream media, or “MSM”. Just as Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a revolt against “the elites” during the referendum campaign, so many online media organisations prosper by promising to reveal “what the media won’t tell you”.

There are independent left-wing sites such as the Canary that are as briskly biased in favour of Corbyn as the Sun is biased against him, and get almost all of their traffic from Facebook. Quite often, I find that I am bombarded with the same attack line or conspiracy theory – that “Blairites” didn’t oppose George Osborne’s welfare cuts, say, or that Angela Eagle staged an attack on her constituency office as a “false flag” – and find that it originated on a popular pro-Corbyn Facebook page.

There is no regulation of these spaces. The law cannot touch them and, for many, they are more trusted as a source of news than the “MSM”. They are encouraging an anti-elite, anti-expert, anti-media populist tone in politics. To begin to tackle this, we should acknowledge just how powerful Facebook has become. “Facebook has a responsibility to society beyond servicing shareholders, Wall Street and VC investors,” says Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, New York. “Just as a water company has a duty not to poison the supply, so Facebook has a responsibility to use its significant distribution power for better democratic and civic outcomes.” 


Update, 27 March: This article originally referred to Jeremy Corbyn losing if the leadership election had the same selectorate as last year. However, that's too strong a conclusion to draw from the YouGov data so I've amended it to reflect the broader point about weakening support from full members. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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