The Writing on the Wall: How Facebook is destroying our capacity for political debate

The increasing trend for Facebook users to share pre-made images with opinions attached is encouraging us to adopt a stranger's agenda wholesale and without question, argues Jacob Mertens.

There has been a trend developing on Facebook for a while now, perhaps you've seen it. A friend of yours, or an acquaintance, or a cherished internet confrere who you do not speak with in the real world keeps sharing viral photos with all-capped, block letters that proclaim some deeply-felt political or religious conviction. However, these images have been lifted from somewhere else; the words do not belong to them, yet through the insistence of the Facebook share button it is as if they do. I have a friend just like this, and his wall is covered with these photos as if his beliefs could and should be reduced to the sophistication of an advertisement. More than anything, the manic energy he devotes to this task strikes me as an easy way out. There is no effort in constructing his opinions, no real thought process. Instead, he creates and broadcasts his identity with the click of a mouse. Months later, these miniature soapboxes of appropriated meaning will vanish and be replaced by a hundred more, and the thoughts will be revealed for what they are: less than smoke.

In truth, much has been made about social media's ability to truncate political meaning (and other meanings, certainly) at the expense of in-depth discussion. Here, though, we observe a different animal, because while there appears to be the makings of a conversation at play with these posts, it's a ruse. Through Facebook, individuals can adopt another's political or spiritual agenda wholesale, sidestepping the hard work of cultivating their own beliefs and effectively demolishing any chance for open communication. This trend is unique in the world of social media, though the driving force of convenience remains unchanged. In contrast, Twitter's guidelines dictate that an idea thrives within the confines of 140 characters; still, the idea generally remains unique to the individual. Retweets make for closer brethren, but even so they are posted with the understanding of another's specific identity behind them. On the other hand, one might argue that websites like Tumblr allow a similarly shallow representation of an individual, in which users craft piecemeal identities solely through pictures, as if a picture could ever tell the whole story. Nevertheless, it is Facebook alone that propagates the distinct illusion of shared dialogue.

There are hundreds of Facebook groups dedicated to the task of distributing these images, and users share them on their walls by the thousands. Meanwhile, one of the only ways to interact with these photos is to "like" them, which Facebook friends and familiars agree to in droves, giving possibly less thought to their flimsy allegiance than it took to redistribute the image in the first place. And while a string of comments, held to 50 in a set and stretching for miles, may allude to some kind of commentary, there’s rarely a tangible way to build on these thoughts and provoke meaningful reflection or insight. Instead, a chaotic chatter gives way and like-minded individuals, and the occasional dissenting pariah, fight for attention, swarming beneath the image like ants and seeming just as relevant. Ultimately, the result of all this “sharing” and “discussing” is a kind of hybrid hive mind in which clarity can only be found through blind loyalty, through posting an image and letting it speak for you.

It's so simple to let someone else say these words, to forgo thoughtful consideration for ease of delivery. What happens to us, as a people, when we let ourselves think like this, be it consciously or unconsciously? There's a reason people avoid subjects of politics and religion, they are supposed to be intensely personal. And yet, somehow, we have begun to relegate these issues to a common unified language that remains unalterable. We no longer bother ourselves with long, drawn out conversations that give room for challenging and reconsidering our uniquely impassioned beliefs. We opt, instead, to let an angry, subcaptioned diatribe beneath a photo or a graph do all the heavy lifting. And beyond the forfeiture of our own unique and mutable personalities, consider that a picture is unmoving, a fixed image that lacks plasticity. A picture alone should not be left to speak a thousand words.
    
 

Since the only option is to "like" something, Facebook narrows the options of debate. Photo: Getty
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change