Bring it on

We can and will expose Cameron Conservatism to be as out of touch and unsuited for these times as La

"The election's a foregone conclusion . . . Labour can't win a fourth term . . . The centre left is in crisis . . . We need to reinvent ourselves . . . Let's debate how 'modern' Cameron's Conservatives are - and who should be Labour's next leader." These assertions - some from the Tories, some from their friends in the media, some from our own side - stem from different motives. But anyone who wants a genuinely progressive government to get us through this global recession must reject them all.

As we approach the most important general election for a generation, this is no time for introspection or defeatism. There's never been a moment when Labour's values and experience have been more relevant or necessary. The biggest global recession in our lifetimes has not only required unprecedented action, it has also shattered some of the assumptions the right have clung to for decades. Who would now dare claim that financial markets, left to their own devices, are efficient or inherently stabilising? Or that financial market regulation is always to be reduced wherever possible?

The global financial crisis of the past year has underlined the importance of our defining philosophy: while markets are powerful drivers of growth and innovation, there is a vital role for the state in making sure they work fairly and in the public interest. The supposedly modern and "progressive" Conservative Party has opposed every action we have taken to support the economy. As Alan Johnson said last weekend, it was the call of the century whether to intervene to stop recession turning to depression - and David Cameron and George Osborne got it wrong.

Where you are on the political spectrum is ultimately defined by two things - your view of what constitutes social justice, and your view of the role of the state in delivering fair outcomes. The stark contrast between the Tories' inaction and calls for spending cuts now, and the way Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have led the world in dealing with the downturn and supporting families, is why I say Labour is clearer about the modern role for the state in delivering fair outcomes than ever.

I don't see our approach today as a wrenching change from the past. New Labour was never about a wholesale embrace of free-market individualism. We always knew that markets should be servants not our masters, that we had to tackle vested interests, that there is a role for government in delivering social justice. That was the essence of the new Clause Four. Look at the radical things we did in the early years: from the minimum wage and the windfall tax to the creation of a single statutory regulator for financial services. But we were also right to strike a careful balance by supporting the market economy and recognising the state can sometimes be part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

So, just as we rejected the heavy-handed anti-individual collectivism of early 1980s Bennite Labour, we were also right to support open markets and champion a tough competition policy as well as proper voice and choice for users of public services. We did not always strike this balance right. In public-service reform, we sometimes sounded as though private-sector solutions were always more efficient; and who can now doubt that, despite the tougher measures we brought in, financial regulation was not tough enough?

We need to continue to get this balance right as we prepare our manifesto - and be clear about the limits of but also the proper role for government. Of course, policy debates, external challenge and new ideas - in the pages of this magazine and from think tanks - are essential, especially after 12 years of government. But we don't need think tanks to work out that there is a false choice between heavy-handed statism which does not respect individual choices and a so-called progressive liberalism that sees the state as the enemy of individual freedom and is just conservatism with the label "progressive" erroneously shoved in front.

Yet while the clear differences between the parties on the economy are well understood, commentators are still claiming we're all the same on tax and spending. This poses a challenge. It's going to be tougher on spending in the coming years - all countries need to get borrowing and the debt ratio down steadily, as the Chancellor set out in the Budget.

But where we have to make tough choices, and where some things have to be cut back, we must do so in a fair and Labour way - because the financial excesses of a few should not be paid for by damaging cuts to front-line public services for the many. On tax, the Tories are also in a fundamentally different place. They oppose our National Insurance rise and higher top rate of tax, and want an inheritance tax cut for the wealthiest. So even before they've started reducing borrowing, the Tories need to find billions every year just to keep deficit reduction on track. This Tory position is not simply about tackling the deficit. It's about ideology, too. Which is why Osborne cannot hide his relish for the deep and immediate spending cuts the Tories propose.

The ideological divide between the two parties - on policy, values, the role of the state - is now wider than at any time since the Thatcherite 1980s. And when the policies and underlying philosophies of the parties are scrutinised - on spending, Europe and education - we can and will expose Cameron Conservatism to be as out of touch and unsuited for these times as Labour was in 1979.We face an election with a choice as stark and vital for Britain's future as 1945 or 1997.

We have to be more determined in setting out the choice and taking the fight to the Tories - not just on the economy, but on tax and spending, too.This is not the time to buy the Tory spin that the election's already lost and throw in the towel. We face the fight of our lives - and Britain faces a choice of huge importance. We can and must win this fight, and ensure that our country makes the progressive choice.

Ed Balls is Labour and Co-operative MP for Normanton and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Ed Balls was formerly the shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.