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
Photo: Getty
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Brexit Big Brother is watching: how media moguls control the news

I know the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph well, and I don’t care to see them like this.

It would take a heart of stone now not to laugh at an illustration of Theresa May staring defiantly out at Europe from the British coast, next to the headline “Steel of the new Iron Lady”.

Those are, however, the words that adorned the front page of the Daily Mail just five months ago, without even a hint of sarcasm. There has been so much written about the Prime Minister and the strength of her character – not least during the election campaign – and yet that front page now seems toe-curlingly embarrassing.

Reality has a nasty habit of making its presence felt when news is remorselessly selected, day in and day out, to fit preconceived points of view. May and her whole “hard Brexit” agenda – which the public has now demonstrated it feels, at best, only half-heartedly enthusiastic about – has been an obsession of several British newspapers, not least the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

I know these papers well, having spent the best part of a quarter-century working for them, and I don’t care to see them like this. When I worked there, a degree of independent thought was permitted on both titles. I joined the Telegraph in 2002; at the time, my colleagues spoke with pride of the paper’s tolerance to opposing views. And when I was at the Mail, it happily employed the former Labour MP Roy Hattersley.

Would I be able to run positive stories about, say, my mate Gina Miller – who successfully campaigned for parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process – in the Telegraph if I were there today? Or at the Daily Mail? Dream on: it’s two minutes of hate for that “enemy of the people”.

Morale in these newsrooms must be low. I am finding that I have to allow an extra half-hour (and sometimes an extra bottle) for lunches with former colleagues these days, because they always feel the need to explain that they’re not Brexiteers themselves.

Among the Telegraph characters I kept in touch with was Sir David Barclay, who co-owns the paper with his brother, Sir Frederick. Alas, the invitations to tea at the Ritz (and the WhatsApp messages) came to an abrupt halt because of you-know-what.

I don’t think Sir David was a bad man, but he got a Brexit bee in his bonnet. I was conscious that he was close to Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and both had cordial relations with Rupert Murdoch. It became clear that they had all persuaded themselves (and perhaps each other) that Brexit suited their best interests – and they are all stubborn.

It seems to me unutterably sad that they didn’t sound out more of their factory-floor staff on this issue. We journalists have never been the most popular people but, by and large, we all started out wanting to make the world a better place. We certainly didn’t plan to make it worse.

People used to tell me that papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph changed because the country had but, even in the darkest days, I didn’t agree with that premise. We are in the mess we’re in now because of personalities – in newspapers every bit as much as in politics. The wrong people in the wrong jobs, at the wrong time.

Would the Daily Mail have backed Brexit under Dacre’s predecessor David English? It is hard to imagine. He was a committed and outward-looking Europhile who, in the 1970s, campaigned for the country to join the EU.

I can think of many Telegraph editors who would have baulked at urging their readers to vote Leave, not least Bill Deedes. Although he had his Eurosceptic moments, a man as well travelled, compassionate and loyal to successive Conservative prime ministers would never have come out in favour of Brexit.

It says a great deal about the times in which we live that the Daily Mirror is just about the only paper that will print my stuff these days. I had a lot of fun writing an election diary for it called “The Heckler”. Morale is high there precisely because the paper’s journalists are allowed to do what is right by their readers and, just as importantly, to be themselves.

Funnily enough, it reminded me of the Telegraph, back in the good old days. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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