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29 December 2017

From ironic Nazis to 280 characters: the New Statesman year in tech

New Statesman writers on the science and tech stories of 2017. 

By New Statesman

When is progress not progress? This question might have occurred to the internet-watcher when Donald Trump began conducting nuclear war negotiations over Twitter, or when conspiracy theorists decided to attack the victims of a botched terrorist attack. 

Here is the year in science and technology, as captured by New Statesman writers:

President Internet

Barack Obama might have been an articulate, thoughtful, handsome, charismatic progressive, but Donald Trump was truly the President the internet deserved. In fact, it had been encouraging him since 2013. It was then that Russell Steinberg tweeted the star of The Apprentice: “If you hate America so much, you should run for President and fix things.” Four years on, Amelia Tait asked him whether he regretted it

A pack of lone wolves

In January, a man entered a mosque in Quebec City, and shot six people dead. A government minister described the attacker as “a lone wolf”. Amelia Tait questioned why online far right radicalisation was not taken as seriously as recruitment by Islamist extremists: “Thanks to internet radicalisation, lone wolves have found a pack.” 

The Furred Reich

As the world tried to digest US president Donald Trump, its attention turned to the growth of the alt right – an online far right culture that revelled in saying the unsayable. Amelia Tait examined the subculture of “ironic Nazis”: people online who flaunt the iconography of National Socialism whilst denying they hold any Nazi views. Stranger still are the Nazi furries – people who dress up as animals while sporting Nazi symbols. 

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Unleash the children

Video calls were intertwined with the fabric of daily life in 2017 – too much so, as one BBC news pundit found out. Read the New Statesman’s resident Media Mole’s blow-by-blow account of how a North Korea expert’s important TV interview was ruined after his children barged in. Plus the Media Mole’s killjoy feminist aunt on why the North Korea expert should be helping out more with the kids in the first place.

To tweet or not to tweet

After a car ploughed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and Parliament went into lockdown, social media was abuzz with images of the attack. Yet many were fake, or real but shockingly graphic. Amelia Tait tracked down the maker of one fake image, shared more than 100,000 times, who told her why he did it. 

You’ve been fyred

Social influencers – social media celebrities who promote products to their followers – have quietly thrived in the online world, bar the odd article warning about the illusions of Instagram. But in April, it all went drastically wrong. The organisers of a new music festival in the Bahamas managed to entice celebrities like Bella Hadid to post heavenly images of their trip to the site. Unfortunately, when ticketholders turned up for the real festival, they found a somewhat different experience waiting. Amelia Tait told the story of Fyre Festival

The political dark arts

During the 2015 general election, interest in the political power of social media was mainly limited to its ability to transform Ed Miliband from a dweeb to a stud. By 2017, everyone took it seriously – and until election night most expected it to benefit the Tories more than Labour. Days before the election, Jasper Jackson wrote about how the Tories were funding attack ads in marginal constituencies, designed to be seen only by the intended recipients. He explored the question more detail in October, after it emerged that Facebook posts created by Russia-linked accounts reached more than a million Americans during and after the presidential election.

Escaping the heat

A hot summer was made toastier still by the war of words flying between said internet president Donald Trump and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, both of whom now have nuclear buttons. While the bulk of the world had a meltdown, the doom-mongers of the 1 per cent invested in luxury nuclear bunkers, as Sanjana Varghese reported in September

Angry white women

In August, far right groups including neo-Nazis gathered in the town of Charlottesville, US, where they were met by a group of counter protestors. During the confrontation, one counter protestor was killed. In the aftermath, Amelia Tait reported on a trend obscured by the images of shouting men – the online radicalisation of white women. 

Marxism 2.0

Labour’s surge in the 2017 general election shone a spotlight on the new, online media outlets of the left, including Novara Media, The Canary and Skwawkbox. Anoosh Chakelian met the people who have mastered the art of making the radical left go viral

App-lying the rules

In September, London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan made headlines after he refused to renew Uber’s licence, effectively banishing it from the city. Khan was praised by those concerned about passenger safety, and the relentless march of the gig economy. But Uber drivers took a different view. “Uber’s runaway growth has coincided with a spectacular fall in driver earnings,” James Farrar, a former Uber driver, wrote in the New Statesman. “Many drivers work up to 90 hours per week and earn little more than £5 an hour after costs.”

Parsons Green truthers

In September, a botched tube bombing occurred at Parsons Green, London, leaving many passengers with minor injuries. The attack was widely reported by mainstream news outlets, yet some on the internet were not convinced. Amelia Tait spoke to a passenger on the tube that day who has since had to contend with Parsons Green “truthers” claiming she was an actor. 

The Ig Nobellest of them all

The Ig Nobel is a satirical awards ceremony for science. This year’s winners included a paper which discovered which part of the brain creates repulsion to cheese. Sanjana Varghese dug out the best of the winners over the years, such as the mathematician who calculated the exact odds of whether Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, is the Antichrist.

Vice without virtue

The internet killed newspapers, but Buzzfeed and Vice rose from the ashes. At least that was the story until a series of profit warnings in late autumn. Jasper Jackson diagnosed what went wrong for the new online media companies, while Helen Lewis examined the giant they all relied on: Facebook.

Short and sweet

In November, Twitter did what it had long threatened, and doubled the character limit per tweet to 280 characters. Was this the end for witty, clipped comments? Amelia Tait chronicled some of the peculiarities of the 140 characters regime, from ironic hashtags to ghost stories. 


This was the year of The Emoji Movie, which the Guardian called “a force of insidious evil”. Meanwhile, emojis summed up the year’s zeitgeist with the addition of a bearded hipster, a breastfeeding mother, a woman in hijab, and a dumpling. But who gets to decide in the first place? In the New Statesman, Sophie McBain explored how a communication tool employed by 90 per cent of social media users is controlled by a  small number of representatives from tech firms. 

Stolen childhoods

While the employment of child stars in film and TV is carefully policed, there is no such meticulous enforcement on online video platforms. On 10 November, Amelia Tait was one of the first to investigate the potential abuses on YouTube, a story later picked up by The Times and Buzzfeed. On 22 November, YouTube announced it would remove content that risked endangering a child, and that it had terminated over 50 channels on that basis. 

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