Saturday, 13 January 2018


News just moves so damned fast nowadays.

In the UK we've had a cabinet reshuffle (after half of them quit), the resignation of Toby Young, an NHS crumbling before our eyes, Farage's suggestion of a second Brexit referendum, and in the U.S, a book about Trump, conflict with Bannon, natural disasters, 'stable genius-gate', and now the president just called every non-white country a shit-hole.

That was just the past few days.

Brexit, Trump, collusion with Russia, war with Korea, sanctions on Iran, ISIS, war in Syria, war in Yemen, war in Ukraine, travel bans, migrants, far-right rallies, fake news, mass shootings, social cleansing, institutionalised sexism, paedophile rings, the homelessness crisis, the NHS crisis, a looming financial crisis... it's all getting a bit much, isn't it?

It's hardly surprising many just want to close their eyes and ears to it - just to 'switch off'. But sadly, it's exactly when populaces do that, that the worst things are liable to be done in their name.

Has the world always been so frantic? Or does it just seem so because of the advance of social media technology, and the fact it's so much more in our faces? Are we just more acutely aware of what was always happening any way? The answer to the that is complex. Yes, probably... to a degree. Politics have always been toxic: it's just now we can all see it. But at the same time, only someone with their head truly buried in the sand could ever suggest there aren't major geopolitical changes taking place at present, or that things don't seem to be turning a little pear-shaped.

All the political division and bitter discourse of recent times has understandably caused many everyday people to resent politics, and more so, those 'political types' who insist on dragging misery into their 'perfect' social media worlds - where only shiny happy pictures are permitted, and boasts of all the wonderful things they're doing with their lives. In other words, those who are happy and secure in their lives (who need not worry about beastly 'politics') are fed up with being tainted by the unhappiness and frustrations of angry people, those less fortunate, and those demanding justice. Boo hoo. 

It seems Mark Zuckerberg agrees. Recent news reports slipped in among all the chaos state that Facebook is planning to do a major clamp-down on 'media and business posts', and to re-structure people's newsfeeds so they hear mostly from 'friends and family'. But amid talk of making the platform more 'friendly' and accessible, less noisy, there's a whispered undercurrent as to what this is all really about: the battle against 'fake news'.

The rise of the 'political celebrity'

Facebook has admittedly become quite an unpleasant place - but no more than Twitter I'd argue. Whereas Instagram is probably okay, as it seems a platform mostly designed for shallow grunting cave-people, who like to communicate with pictures.

Ironically, I daresay even the political ranters get very tired of so much ranting on Facebook. Becoming a 'political voice' is the new, more inclusive X-Factor: anyone can have a go.

It's a pattern that's dogged me my entire life to be fair, much to my frustration. I wanted to be a singer and musician when it was a fairly specialised vocation, next came reality TV, then everyone and their dog started thinking themselves a singer. I've watched the industry devolve into a saturated, shameless and vacuous mug's game as a result. Similarly, I've been writing and talking about politics on social media for ten years plus now while everyone else I knew was sharing cat videos; in the past two years I've seen more political blogs and political 'celebrities' spring up, commanding vast swathes of sycophants, than in the entirety of my time on social media before that.

Katie Hopkins, Paul Joseph Watson, Tommy Robinson, Milo Yiannopoulos... and dozens more.

Strangely, I personally moaned for years that nowhere near enough people were paying attention, that more people should take an interest in politics. Careful what you wish for. Now I can't help but think too many cooks spoil the broth. And actually, now everybody is shouting, it was possibly better when the medium of political discussion was niche, unofficially reserved for those who genuinely closely follow current events (not just sound bites) and know what they're talking about. Look at the carnage that widespread ignorance has caused.

Baby out with the bath water

Objectively, that is what we'd hope Zuckerberg is trying to counteract. But there's a very real danger that the 'baby will be thrown out with the bath-water'. Our freedoms, particularly our internet freedoms and freedom of speech are incredibly fragile - and once they've been taken away, not only will they be incredibly hard to win back, but we've pretty much sealed our own fate.

One problem is that 'fake news', to most people any way, will be an entirely subjective concept. Ask anyone mainstream or on the right in the UK, and they'd point you in the direction of publications like The Canary. Ask anyone on the left, and they'd point out that publications like The Canary sprung up exactly to counteract right-wing propaganda and spin.

And it's exactly the ambiguity of the blanket term 'fake news' that's so frightening. It can literally mean absolutely anything the people in charge want it to describe. Those in charge of Facebook, the police, the government... THEY get to decide. Words can't really stress how dangerous that is, not least given the authoritarian turn our societies seem to be taking. We all gasp and jeer at leaders like Erdogan silencing the press and civil dissent in Turkey, but really, the same thing is happening in Britain - just more gradually, more subversively. Small piece at a time. Only a few days ago, I saw a Facebook user video showing a van load of UK police attending a union sanctioned strike, blocking and man-handling protesters. We ain't got Bobbies to police the streets, or to stem knife crime and acid attacks, but God forbid large companies in league with the government should lose out on profits. Meanwhile at the same time, they're proposing rounding up homeless people in Windsor to avoid unsightliness at the next royal wedding, and new scratchcards to gift the Queen a yacht.

The police in the UK and America are gradually becoming enforcers of corporatism, not the rule of law. A privatised police force, as prolific authors like Orwell predicted. If those same principles are applied to social media now (more so than they already are), we're in real trouble.

Upsetting the apple cart

What this is really about is that left-wing voices and ideologies are now heard. For a while, a good long while, the powers-that-be were unable to silence them. Political discourse and journalism were no longer merely the realm of cold, distant and passionless words - of facts and figures voiced by a disassociated clique, to whom small matters like poverty, starvation, war and injustice are just words in a conversation. Referenced as flippantly as anyone else might 'tea & cake'.

Emotions, passion, righteous anger... these are things most distasteful to the privileged and moneyed classes, who really just wish the plebs would shut-up.

The independent online journalism 'epidemic' really started with left-wing blogs and activists, mostly since 2010: when openly hard-line Conservative politics again took root in Britain. The left-wing started to fight-back. The wide availability of information meant that those who paid attention started recognising lies, and asking questions. They gained traction. Skip forward five years, we had a genuinely socialist leader of the Labour party in Jeremy Corbyn. Then, despite every effort of the right-wing and mainstream press to destroy him, the activists and independent left-wing press who championed him (of which I'd consider myself a very small part) almost upset the apple cart at the 2017 General Election.

The 'noise' has only ramped up in the last few years because the right-wing caught up. The likes of The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Express were losing their grip, so the same factions started making their presence felt on social media - perhaps even more effectively. The left and centre weren't at all ready for the level of callous dishonesty and unashamed manipulation they'd employ, which is how we ended up with Brexit, and Trump. The angry clash between the two parties on both sides of the Atlantic has been making one helluva din ever since, and social media insanely toxic.

'Woke' populations

It's hardly surprising that 'woke' populations, aware of the corruption rife among those supposedly governing in their interests, go hand in hand with civil unrest. It's a legitimate and justifiable response. It's also how humankind and civil rights made progress, mostly in the twentieth century - when rich men and dictators robbed millions of everyday people of their lives, in a grandiose game of chess. The free press and freedom of information played a big part in that progress, which in turn is now amplified beyond imagination by social media.

However, now the suggestion and general feeling is that instead of embracing truth and justice like we did in the past, being informed is actually a bad thing. No, we all need to go back to being 'ambivalent'. Eg: instead of visibly addressing widespread malcontent, the establishment's answer is to forcibly shut our eyes, and tell us not to care. To let them get on with it. 

Nor is it coincidence that it's happening precisely as we concurrently see the beginnings of assault on education and learning in Britain. Smart, well informed people rock the boat. (The French Revolution began in universities, after all.)

The real target

Social media news has certainly engaged younger generations in ways that newspapers always struggled. They generally only appealed to 'boring elites' in suits, and people looking for gossip and/or tits on page three. That youth engagement is incredibly dangerous to an establishment that actively relies on little people just accepting their lot in life, and not paying much attention.

If the wide availability of news and information on Facebook is shut-down, or at very least severely hamstrung, the right-wing press will survive. Rupert Murdoch will survive. Those who've always controlled the flow of information will survive. The large corporations who profit on misery will survive. Left-wing causes may not. It's a very deliberate step to silence the likes of The Canary, Evolve Politics, Sqwawk Box, Another Angry Voice, and also more 'respected' left-wing varieties like the Huffington Post, The Independent, and The New European. Not to mention little old blogs like mine too. Eg: those who rely on social media circulation. 

Yes a few publications like Westmonster and Media Guido might get taken down with us, but there's more than enough bile and spin to take their place. The BBC alone have probably got it covered. Social media news allows the populace to decide what's important and what's not: it interrupts the intended news cycle of what we're supposed to forget, or simply not notice. (Grenfell survivors, for example, would have been long forgotten without the advent of social media activism. And Toby Young would now be in office. Two drops in an ocean.)

So as much as many of us would prefer to rewind the clock, back to before the world chose insanity, and no-one cared too much for politics...back to when Facebook was just for funny videos and pictures of cats, please friends don't be too quick to condemn us to the potential darkness of ignorance and easy manipulation. The only 'clamp-down' should be upon those who disseminate false, unverified, and unsubstantiated material.

Because of course, the simply huge elephant in the room, is the only people who get political updates on Facebook any way, are those who've actively chosen to see them. Anyone who wants to clean up their timeline and/or bury their head in the sand, can already do so very easily.

What Zuckerberg, or those pulling his strings seem to be removing, is that very ability to choose. I'm not sure I can celebrate that.

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