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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.