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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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