In Defence of Social Media

Orwell was wrong, Huxley was right. We are Amusing Ourselves to Death: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

As the Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, SCL, BeLeave, Trump, Aggregate iQ story spools out before us like a discarded plot-line from Brave New World we are being urged to abandon social media. It is after all toxic as this weeks horrific (but unsurprising report by Amnesty) outlined in graphic detail. We are being manipulated, we are victims and complicit in our own exploitation, and we don’t really care. Deep Soma is more powerful than the Deep State. We are addicted to the dopamine hit of Likes and Shares and the lazy armchair-activism of clicktivism. But if the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy manifest themselves as Cat videos, Sioux Wisdom memes and selfie-narcissism there are other more positive aspects of social media that need to be weighed-up in the #DeleteFacebook equation. For every Katie Hopkins there’s a Naomi Wadler. Somehow we need to reclaim the tools of social media that have been captured by corporate interest and the political elite and used as a means of spreading fear and hatred. Abandoning Facebook feels like abandoning public broadcasting because the BBC is shit. It feels like another aspect of resignation that technology and media inevitably acts against us as if this a natural state of being. It’s not. The idea that we can’t control, regulate or define our own world is own that is itself deeply political. Besides, social media has done great things. It has acted as a counter-force to the tabloid press in this country, it acted as the fulcrum for the Yes movement in 2014 and is a key tool for social change in the world. In Tunisia in 2010, or watching Telecomix (‘the Yin to the Yang of Anonymous’) install modem stacks to resurrect the internet in Egypt in the Arab Spring in 2011, social media has been a tool for network-enabled-collaboration and subversion not just in progressive political movements but in revolutionary ones. As Emma Gonzalez stands silently weeping it’s worth reflecting on the potential power this holds for mass solidarity, huge-scale connected action and live-world protest. Some people have suggested that #MarchForOurLives may be largest single-day demonstration in D.C.’s history, and as Mark Elliot wrote yesterday:

Its easy to become blasé about the fact that we can share and communicate the scale of protest being witnessed here.

Amongst the many things that are inspiring about the March for Our Lives campaign is that it is led by a generation of people who are routinely castigated as being lazy, apolitical, and disenfranchised but have stood up to the NRA and their political representatives in a way that their parents and grandparents have shamefully refused to. Second they have reach out to connect with #BlackLivesMatter in a way that is not just about digital-savvy, or political awareness and moral consciousness but solidarity. That has been a two-way process. Third, in the face of threats and intimidation by the Loons of the Internet and their lurking Alt-Right cousins they don’t give a fuck. May the generational revenge that we are witnessing in the US may have it’s equivalent soon to the people who voted for Dependence in 2014 and Leave in 2016.

The Difficulty in Leaving But if the case for taking back control of technology and media tools that can be used in the service of social change and conviviality can be made by hundreds of examples and of the experience of unfettered power in the hands of the few, there is another more prosaic reason for not abandoning these networks. A more difficult reality is that Facebook, and other forms have relaxed the sinew of community and connectivity that has been drained out of society by the forces of capitalism. Whether that be new forms of work, the destruction of neighbourhoods, the erosion of public life, or the rise of alienation and anomie, the reality is that social media is a necessary means for people to keep it together in a world drifting apart. You can say “Cambridge Analytica is stealing your data” but the response is likely to be “I want to see my grand-daughters birthday photos” or the picture of my pal looking stupid in the pub. One woman last week described how living in dual Ireland on her own with he kids, Facebook had become a lifeline for her to friends and family. She’s not alone. Or rather, she is. The dynamic between social isolation  and social media is under-researched. I suspect we have tried to replace community with network and while this is unlikely to work, it’s replacement is also likely to be resisted. Because of the social conditions of late-capitalism we face mass isolation. Last year’s cross-party Jo Cox Commission described male loneliness as a “silent epidemic”. #IamLonely is unlikely to have the same viral Spartacus impact as #MeToo because it is not supported by a global political movement. But it is also not conducive to conditions for a mass exodus from social media forums with which we have a complex relationship. People won’t leave Facebook because Facebook now has an important social function for them. It is the digital sticking plaster to the reality of social isolation. The Politics of Fear Although our understanding of the technical ways in which big data can be used against us is a revelation, what’s possibly more important is the psychological tools at play. As Gaby Hinsliff reports we saw: “Two suits, in a swanky restaurant, blithely boasting about exploiting fears buried so deep inside our subconscious that most of us don’t even know we have them; claiming that, for the right price, they can creep invisibly into your head.” Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower Carol Cadwalladr worked with, has said the company used data harvested from prospective voters to “build models to exploit what we knew about them, and target their inner demons”. They talk proudly of operating subliminally, exploiting fears where “you didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction”. Some of this will be familiar to independence supporters who will recall the torrent of fears and negativity that cascaded down onto Scottish voters in 2014. Blair McDougall famously admitted that they couldn’t have won without it.  It will be familiar too to the people on the March for Our Lives who have faced-down their own Project Fear in the shape of the NRA. So as well as, and probably more important than regulating dark money in politics, or big data in our timelines, we need to reclaim politics as something that isn’t just a reduction of our private nightmares projected onto the billboards of public life and the pages of degenerate media outlets. These could be red stars. At what point did politics move from being a competing narrative of possible futures and become instead the wasteland of our sub-conscious fears exploited for a lucrative buck by Etonian snake-oil salesmen? Let us be inspired by the young people of America to reclaim your politics, and our technology.

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  1. Crubag says:

    Worth remembering that 1984 was about Party members (the intelligentsia), and that the majority of the population were “proles”, free from surveillance, poor, and kept pacified by beer, lotteries, and machine-written entertainment (including Pornosec). Huxley and Orwell were writing warnings rather than prophecies, but I’d say Orwell came closer as a prophet.

    Political parties have always been hungry for data. That’s what canvassing was largely about. But my impression is that Scots at least have withdrawn from social media as a political platform since 2014. It’s too divisive among friends and family.

    I think this is confirmed by the fate of the National Survey which was a bit too crude in its appeal for personal data, and therefore not completed. People still have views, they’re just less willing to share then with people they don’t know (see also under “shy Tories”).

    1. Willie says:

      I’m not so sure that people are shy in sharing information Cuban.

      Through the use of the Internet and platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, email, and all of rest of the commonly used software, people actually share every bit of their information. Who they are, what they like, their probable political orientation, their likely economic status. Its all there to be mined by clever algorithms and powerful computers.

      And yes the government, the security services, the corporate elite, are all into it as the latest expose illuminates.

      Indeed, go to the doctor and you have to agree with your personal data being available to be shared with the Home Office, HMRC, the Border Agency, Local Authorities. And yes the mechanism is all hard wired in, in use, and not a cheep from the Soma.

      Regulation of course is the answer, but who regulates the regulators, especially when the Soma don’t care.

      The last decade has seen a relentless fall in the standards of living for the majority. The super rich are getting even more rich whilst benefits, welfare and social protection withers under a constant attack from our democratic Westminster regulators and their friends.

      It takes a lot of kicking to make the worm turn, and maybe this particular worm will turn.

      Unfortunately, unless the worm wakes up, takes an interest in its environment and how it is regulated, it may for the most part end up like battery chickens in a cage.

      So yes Editor, a good article telling it how it is. But has the message got through to the somnolent.

      Indy Ref2 is our opportunity. But and it is a big but, why is the Hollywood Government so complicit in information surveillance. They’ve introduced it by stealth in the NHS.

      Maybe they could explain why?

  2. Somerled says:

    If people are being influenced politically by pseudo-psycho crap on social media, it’s because they choose to be influenced by it. There’s no excuse for political ignorance today and, that being the case, if you are ignorant and open to manipulation then hell mend you; you reap what you sow.

    I know virtually nobody who easily fits into that category, though, and we should stop assuming there’s some vast underclass of uneducated morons who are sitting ducks for political marketing. People aren’t half as thick as the cadres on here and in Cambridge would have us believe.

    The biggest problem facing progressives and activists today — facing society and the world too — is the oldest problem; political leaders who for one reason or another abandon principle and the support base that put them there. God knows that you here on “the left” are familiar enough with that sort of thing; from Ramsay to Tony, you’ve been shafted left, right, and centre.

    Of course, Corby is different, I know…

    So, maybe if you are looking for gullible morons who are victims of political manipulation and exploitation, you could look closer to home.

    1. “if you are open to manipulation then hell mend you; you reap what you sow” – what does that mean?

      “we should stop assuming there’s some vast underclass of uneducated morons who are sitting ducks for political marketing” – that seems to contradict your first statement

      “if you are looking for gullible morons who are victims of political manipulation and exploitation, you could look closer to home” – thanks for the tip but that wasn’t the case I was making

      You seem very angry but also very incoherent

      1. Somerled says:

        1) It means that if you are foolish enough to let yourself be manipulated by politicians then you will get what you deserve. Politics, Paragraph 1, page 1: don’t trust any politician — ever!

        2) Since I go on to say that I don’t know anyone who is unwittingly manipulated in the way that is being suggested amidst this whole Facebook discussion, there is no contradiction or incoherence.

        3) If you look at UK political history over the last 100 years, it would be easy to make the case that the left are the most easily manipulated and duped group of all though. If there’s any doubt about that, and there may be, it derives from the possibility of them knowingly allowing themselves to be duped which confirms my initial point (that people generally choose to let themselves be manipulated) and that’s a very different thing.

        Of course, the whole discussion is junk. Politicians and others have always used available technologies to promulgate and persuade. Before Facebook it was TV and newspapers, before that radio, pamphlets, etc., etc. There’s nothing new in any of this.

        If progressives have been thwarted over the last century, if good goals haven’t been reached and diabolical things have been allowed to happen on our watch, it’s not only too easy to blame it on Facebook or whatever, it’s wrong.

        People talk about Orwell on here a lot and one of the reasons I am not a fan is that there’s a lot of ambiguity in what he says. I’ve seen many on the right and left of politics use his works to substanciate all sorts of arguments.

        If there was one thing Orwell was pretty clear on, though, it was on the propensity of people to delude themselves, to censor themselves, and for them to stand back and watch as their political leaders hijack, corrupt, and twist their causes and principles. That’s possibly the one common and clear idea that exists in all the Orwell books of I have read.

        As for The Labpur Party, given our experience of them repeatedly stabbing humanity in the back over the last century, well, only a fool would walk into that door again now.

        Yes, I’m angry. I’m angry at Labour and the left who have systematically let us down. I’m angry at the state of British politics which I blame on Labour and the left. I’m angry that Scotland isn’t independent, largely because of the role of Labour and the left. And I’m particularly angry at the prospect of Labour and the left doing it all again.

        1. Isn’t Scotland not independent because not enough people voted for it in 2014? That’s the fault of a number of groups, parties and factors not exclusively ‘Labour and the Left’ surely? The ‘Left’ as I recall played a large instrumental in the Yes movement did it not?

          1. Willie says:

            Somerset, people of all persuasions, intellectual and educational abilities are susceptible to manipulation.

            At its most base telling downright lies is one form of manipulation. Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction ready to attack London being a particular example.

            Creating an image of let us say sophisticated looking attractive women smoking, or the Malborough cowboy on a horse helped bolster smoking.

            Influencing human behavior as to what they buy, what they support, how they vote is very real.

            In the first example we waged a terrible war founded on a lie and reaped a whirlwind of discontent.

            In the latter millions were influenced, despite the industry knowing the risks, to spend billions so that they could die a rotten death through smoking related illness.

            None if these examples indicate a moron class. But they do indicate that the masses can be manipulated.

            The expose of Cambridge Analytical reveals however that with the modern media and access to incredible levels of data, how easy the manipulation of the somnolent can become.

            So how do you wake people up Somerset. That is the big question. Controlling the methods of communications, press, radio, television and then using personal data culled from people’s willingness to share data to target and influence them is what is going on.

            It worked in the Scottish Referendum and Project Fear played a huge part in it.

            So yes you may be angry with the result and think of some of the voters as being dumb. Not all voters are like the readers and bloggers of Bella Caledonia, who would more than agree that the Union Dividend is as good as the recent bankrupted Carillion.

            The pound, staying in Europe, the ability to pay pensions, being part of one of the strongest economies in the world are all now being exposed as lies.

            But they worked at the time, and no, people were not morons in voting in the way that they did, because they were simply lied to, and frightened into believing in the Union Dividend.

            But we will have the chance again, and this time, we may well prevail.

            So stick with it Somerled. It can be done. Forty Five percent against the nachine was, a close run thing.

          2. Somerled says:

            I think it would help if you defined what you meant by ‘left’ or, more importantly, made clear which ‘left’ you were referring to when you said the ‘left’ was instrumental in the Yes movement.

            One left (Labour), did everything it could to undermine Yes. That is the ‘left’ of Iraq, so many million ruined lives, and The Vow amongst other achievements.

            The other ‘left’, perhaps unintentionally, was absolutely instrumental in the Yes Movement, you’re right. And it was instrumental in scuppering the appeal of independence in the eyes of higher earners and the business community, amongst others. Survey data confirms this.

            I remember reading about how South American humanitarian protests were deliberately undermined by the presence of these Cultural groups who turned up dressed in traditional Inca outfits and stuff, with feathered hats and scantily clad women dancing to pipes and drums. I get it.

            For me the distinction is less meaningful, though, since I reject both ‘lefts’, think leftist politics should be kept out of the independence debate, and am unlikely to fall for the old lie that Labour has somehow changed and returned to its roots and traditions.

          3. I’m not sure how you could be “unintentionally” a key part of a political movement … ‘Oops’ I’ve organised a conference with 3000 people at it …

            Can you explain how this might be possible?

          4. T cross says:

            Radical groups joined YES plus the SSP but there was a substantial No cadre from Red Book , Morning Star , Labout Left, TUs and the Communists who were all for NO and played a significant role.

    2. Peter B says:

      @somerled I think the point of some of the revelations this week is that they (being data brokerages, and engineers and psychologists working in this field) – is that they are well ahead of us in terms of being able to make long term efforts to alter opinion as they literally know more about us than we know about ourselves.

      Chris Wylie explains this quite well and I would add that nobody no matter how smart they think they are can say they have never been influenced by marketing or advertising of any sort – it just doesn’t work like that.

      If you are suggesting that people of lower intelligence than you or people that for whatever reason do not fully engage with politics deserve to be fooled then that is IMHO not very kind.

      Also if all those people are fooled, then it follows that we all suffer as a result anyway. I don’t think anybody has suggested there is a class of gullible morons anywhere, left or right. I think the suggestion instead is that social media is being deliberately used to create emotional contagions and that it has been seen to work.

      1. Somerled says:

        Everything you and Willie above are saying about Facebook and the manipulative potential of advertising and marketing could have been said about cave paintings one million years ago. There’s nothing new in it.

        If you take an example, say Scottish pensioners in the referendum of 2014 who are routinely used as examples of gullible fools who fell for project fear, in actual fact you could just as easily use them examples of people who were acting and voting very rationally for their own self interest.

        There’s a lot of chicken and egg with this stuff but I would say it was totally logical and rational for many pensioners to worry about losing their BRITISH State pension when we were talking about dumping the British State.

        The Yes movement failed to allay those fears for reasons that are pretty straight forward — they had a lack of media access.

        Btw, hope and fear are as central to language, advertising, marketing, and rearing children, as they are to politics and everything else. Again, nothing new in that sort of thing, we all do it.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    The comparison between Huxley and Orwell is interesting (although their views cannot adequately be represented by a single novel each), but you could have both sides: the stressful fearing of the stick propelling you to the drugged carrot; eating the drugged carrot and becoming oblivious to the sticks which threaten others.

    Since the Worldwide Web was itself designed to be social, I think we need to be careful in using the term social media, especially in a very narrow sense interchangeable with the current market leader(s) in self-publicity services. There is a vast array of other kinds of social media on the web, from online learning platforms, research collaboration, news commentary, audio-visual creativity, help forums, gaming discussions and mod-building, knowledge-building, software and hardware cooperations and so forth. Why, we might ask, is mainstream media news so interested in pursuing the narrowest definition of branded for-profit social media?

    There are certainly other perspectives that come with different ideologies, such as not-for-profit organisations like Mozilla, who have been providing their own recent commentary:

    In the old days of the web, some people thought that the walled garden of AOL *was* the web. Today some people still apparently view their corporate-provided platforms as the only game in town. Yet the layers of Internet run on a bedrock of free and open-source software and standards, and the web would never have succeed on a proprietary commercial basis (and indeed was in danger of a damaging schism during the browser wars).

    I have never been a Facebook member, but from descriptions of the platform it seems like one of the dumbest varieties of modern web application, whose technology is really nothing special and could be replaced by competitors easily enough. I guess they don’t making switching easy though. The ease with which products like Facebook can integrate other services (like news) is due to the robust nature of the underlying interoperability standards, not the elegance of their code, and the quality of content descriptions or metadata (not their strong point, such categorization).

    Rather than Huxley’s soma drug, I think we need to look out for more adaptable agents of behavioural modification which improve through natural selection. This article might seem outlandish but the examples from nature exist:
    and there could be equivalents afloat in the bloodstream of the Internet (such are the voices of factored friends and artificial angels).

    If Facebook is doing your nut in (as one friend expressed it), leave, and maybe join some other online platform that provides the social stimulus you find healthy. Become a learner, an active contributor, a news provider, a digital artist, an asker and an answerer. And if you have to give up the lazy-arse self-promotion and vapid consumerism that Facebook encourages, well then.

    1. Peter B says:

      @sleepingdog Can’t fault you there – just want to say that I approve of your definition of social media – these comments make this blog social media – eBay – it’s social media. Here we are socialising and Mike is correct in this article to say in essence, that is a very a good thing.

  4. Peter B says:

    I hope nobody is suggesting we leave social media all together, but it’s right to question our use of any company that displays rotten ethics – other social networks are available and new ones appear and disappear all the time. All of Kim Ditcom’s internet projects for example usually have an ethical and privacy oriented basis.

    I feel mass islolation is a corollary of mass surveillance and surveillance economy heightens this because actions such as voting and consuming are emotional choices more than we imagine.

  5. Somerled says:

    “I’m not sure how you could be “unintentionally” a key part of a political movement … ‘Oops’ I’ve organised a conference with 3000 people at it …
    Can you explain how this might be possible?”

    No. Since I didn’t say that, there’s no need for me to explain it.

    I said the left may have been unintentionally instrumental in the Yes movement. By that I meant instrumental in its failure which, unintentionally or not, the data suggests they were.

    But, I sound like I’m just indiscriminately bashing the left now, which I’m not. I simply think they should leave the berets at the door when they come in under the roof of the independence movement; for pragmatic reasons, if nothing else.

    The left scares the horses — that’s the lesson of 2014. Once we are independent they can make their case like everyone else. And I’ll be happy to explain why I think socialism is a bad idea when that time comes.

    1. I’d like you to outline the data that shows how the left was instrumental in the failure of the Yes movement, thanks.

      1. Somerled says:

        “According to Ipsos MORI (from whose last two polls the relevant information is uniquely available), no less than 65% of those living in one of the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland voted Yes, compared with just 36% of those in the one-fifth most affluent…”

        Evidence suggests voting along rigid class lines which, as I suggested, would have been exacerbated by the perception that the Yes movement had the appearance of a socialist carnival.

        Maybe you can give one example in any country ever where the loony left didn’t scare the horses (more affluent) in an election?

        And all this when, rightly or wrongly, there were major doubts going around about the economic viability of independence.

        If Indyref2 ever happens, I would hope lessons could be learned from all this.

        1. I’m not sure what the ‘Loony Left’ is – have you been reading the Sun? Most of what RIC and Commonweal and other left groups and writers put forward for example is just mainstream social democratic policy in mainland Europe.

          If you wish to put forward a vision of an independent Scotland from a right-wing perspective you are very free to do so – and I wish you all the best luck with that.

  6. markiemac says:

    Interesting you begin with the Orwell Huxley contrast and end with how they subliminally play on our fears,….
    Regarding he pleasures Huxley is right and visible.
    Regarding the Fears Orwell is right too, but its subliminal, under the level of most players consciousness…
    nice work, well said!

    1. Thanks – good points, you’re right – the idea that it’s an either/or between Orwell and Huxley is a bit of a construct (sorry/not sorry)

  7. John S Warren says:

    I do not wish to appear as if I am loftily issuing merits, as if I was entitled to arbitrate the only authoritative conclusion (a position I suspect is too often merely assumed by self-important commenters who seem to arrive here only to commend their own intellectual narcissism): but I just wanted to say, Mike that I think that is one of the most accomplished, skilfully drafted things you have written (at least that I have read); just my opinion.

  8. milgram says:

    Yeah, but no…
    I think this piece is conflating the internet and social media. It’s the internet that enables the instant communication and ease of organising that’s praised; it’s social media _companies_ that enable the surveillance, manipulation and disruption of that organising.
    20 years ago the organising was being done through email lists and for a time, we were ahead of the game. Now, that space has been taken over by for-profit, centralised (but oh so convenient) companies. Now you can organise, we’ll host your pics and videos and look at the validation and ‘reach’ represented by this wee number that keeps going up!
    But, the private space that a movement needs has gone. Well, not gone it’s just empty because we stopped maintaining it because it needed a lick of paint and oooh shiny event page, do we really have to go flyposting in the cold? So the members are known for the asking, they’re available to be marketed at, or indicted, or shut down at will. We’re surrounded.
    What’s the way out? (re)Build the non-corporate web. Remember that it’s not just “go where people are” but also “bring them into free spaces we can build together”.
    But I lost this argument (and the will to keep having it) years ago.

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