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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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.