Echo chambers and fake news: elite contempt for social media

It is understandable that social media gets a bad press. After all, conventional journalists like to have their output appreciated by a respectful audience. Moreover, many politicians appreciate gentle scrutiny from people who attended the same schools as they did. But it is the unpredictable nature of modern electorates, and outbursts of independent thinking, which have put social media in the dock.

Many stories carried in the ordinary press are slight. And some are almost entirely constructed of interpretation. The traditional newspaper needs to be full, and it needs to sell. Meanwhile, orthodox politicians hate alternative views of the Syrian conflict being in circulation. The Western ideal is that political dispute should not impact on the conduct of foreign policy.

It is in this context that the frenzy of establishment journalist Nick Cohen can be understood. This former man of the left is swift to condemn anybody who might dissent from hegemonic interpretations of contemporary events. He is vitriolic about conspiracy theories and left populism. The insistence that evidence gathering should be part of the response to an alleged chemical attack by Russia is grist to his content mill.

An echo chamber is supposed to describe a situation where somebody is affected by the presence of views which reinforce their own. The idea is that cognitive dissonance could develop over time. However, a modern user of social media has access to articles produced by The New York TimesThe Financial Times, The Morning Star and The Guardian– a richer diet of news than many readers in earlier eras would have had. If an awareness of media bias is retained then an individual is not part of an echo chamber. Sharing views that are similar to our own is equivalent to talking to our friends or political associates- in earlier times such activity was not disparaged.

What constitutes fake news is controversial. For populists of the right it may simply mean content which they have a problem with. However, there may be some news which genuinely lacks authenticity. It is important to consider the purpose of the media as a whole. Ultimately, most news intends to entertain. Other news aspires to work as propaganda. We are haunted by the famous dystopias of the past. Whether journalism spreads anxiety, discusses the weather, or seeks to satisfy the pleasure principle, it has a limited shelf-life. Sometimes we should remember the old adage: no news is good news.


The Scum Gentry Guide to Living Foolishly by The Scum Gentry Press and Contributors

This varied anthology is guaranteed to make the reader think. Poetry, prose and art rub shoulders with interesting analysis, while a sensible appreciation of an essay by philosopher Bertrand Russell makes the cut.

Austerity provides the context for the book. But the grimness of reality does not submerge the creativity of the writers in question. Of course, the individuals involved in the project have literary influences, but they have pulled together something new.

Not everyone will be pleased by the result. People who worship authority may not enjoy the reading experience. Equally, critics who are wedded to political correctness might not appreciate each piece of work in the collection.

However, it should be remembered that real political correctness is a form of courtesy. It is all about extending politeness to groups which suffer from disadvantage. Political correctness should not be used to limit artistic expression unless there is likely to be genuine social harm. Therefore this colourful text will not offend any freethinking person.



The Welfare State We’re In by James Bartholomew

Many journalists are dangerous people. While some governments persecute the profession, other administrations enable hacks to get away with murder. Quick to judge, the Western press operates like a pack while preaching the virtues of individualism.

This book was written by a typical British journalist. Without adequate theoretical reflection, James Bartholomew plunged into the collection of evidence. The simplistic research technique used allowed the writer to buttress his prejudices. Elementary theory about the nature of causation was neglected at every stage of the analysis.

The core idea of the text is that the UK has gone to the dogs. Even if this was entirely true, a typical academic would come up with multi-causal explanations for this outcome. They might mention a decline in deliberative democracy, stubborn inequality, elite inefficiency, and growing environmental challenges.  Bartholomew, while mocking the more cerebral Will Hutton, simply blamed the existence of the welfare state.

Nobody would pretend that the welfare state was perfect. Underfunded and partly outsourced, the British welfare state has always delivered a wide variety of outcomes. But attacking its existence takes a special kind of stupidity. Bartholomew wades into waters where subtler minds would not tread. For his extremely conservative views, he has won the acclaim of the Labour MP Frank Field. While this veteran politician has tended to embrace the third sector, it is disquieting that he has such a lack of appreciation for public sector workers.

Since the publication of this rant, public sector cuts have impacted on workers and citizens. Unfortunately for the argument of Bartholomew, we have not seen a fall in violent crime as a result. Squeezing the poor has not led to the emergence of a vibrant civil society. The scaling back of the welfare state has exposed the dependency of the third sector on public spending. Furthermore, the dismantling of the protections that vulnerable people require has not led to the boom in economic growth which the author had wanted.


Nostalgia in politics revisited

Conservative politics is all about making selective journeys to the past. People are sometimes comforted by familiar ways of looking at the world. If the West is headed for a post-democratic order, then we must be prepared to be transported back to moments of national purpose.

Clearly, Trump and Brexit can be viewed through this prism. What could be more nostalgic than trying to revive the rust belt using tariffs to protect old industrial sectors? What is more old-fashioned than British passport fetishism? All this patriotic drift is well understood by journalists.

However, reviving the Cold War (minus its ideology) may suit conservatives in Russia or the UK. Stoking hatred of ‘the other’ is a classic elite move. The Conservative Party was triumphant in the 1980s and the Prime Minister would love to be a postmodern Mrs Thatcher. The bellicosity of Mrs Thatcher was central to her initial electoral successes.

The trouble with replaying the politics of the past is that it does little to engage with the lived realities of a population. Pressing issues like climate change, automation, inequality, and uneven spatial development do require solutions. The nostalgic politics of distraction simply kick the various cans down the road. Even where the media may help to attenuate democracy, the people do have ways of expressing their dissatisfaction with their leaders. It might prove that the centre cannot hold.

Death In Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen

This powerful story takes the reader on a journey around the Eternal City. It is set in the period when fascism had collapsed. While the cast of characters does contain some clumsy stereotypes, the poverty and misery of the city create a remarkable atmosphere.

When authoritarianism is on the rise again, this book is a reminder of what happens when toxic political dreams are met by harsh economic reality. Inflation is rife in a city which was instrumental in the development of fascism.

The basic absurdity of prejudice is exposed when a fascist fails to accept that his war is over. He rages against Jews whilst being unable to differentiate them from Catholics. His machismo appears ridiculous when age and alcohol have reduced his powers. Moreover, his misogyny makes no sense when his emotions are stretched by a whore. Furthermore, his urge to dominate is undermined as his family adopt occupations which make him really uncomfortable.

People can get really excited by the politics of the right. Symbols can defeat reasoned arguments. Emotions can overrule evidence. Citizens can be duped by slogans. But when the truth eventually surfaces everyone has to cope with the wreckage. It is easy for politicians to create scapegoats for economic ills: it is best if populations resist propaganda and frame collective disappointments differently. Death In Rome underlines the consequences of letting the powerful do politics without proper scrutiny.

Overall, this translated novel is a strange reading experience. It is hard to discern whether or not Mervyn Savill did full justice to the complex text. But translating is a tricky job, and the pay is not always what it should be.

City deals: local solutions to national problems?

Enthusiasm for city deals has become the new normal in the UK. Politicians of left and right express their support for all things local. The idea is that areas can get extra funding and that this will help them to address interurban inequality. A major difficulty is that longstanding urban decline is not created within one city. Places get left behind in part because of their dysfunctional relationships with other places.

The attraction of a city deal for Whitehall is clear. It is handy if local people take responsibility for issues which they perceive as their own. If movers and shakers are kept busy, they are unlikely to resist the unequal relationships which tend to determine  policy outcomes on the ground.

In the UK, a huge amount of economic and environmental trouble is caused by the North-South divide. Initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse are insufficient when it comes to tackling the gap in resource allocation. City deals are a poor substitute for a National Spatial Strategy. If house building is to occur on a national scale, then local urban policies are likely to fail disadvantaged areas.

It is evident that Brexit could undermine the economic potential of peripheral cities. If there is disruption to trading relationships then this will impact adversely on manufacturing industry. A decline in prosperity may make the country less pleasant to visit. City deals will not make residents more welcoming to others if they do not promote genuine hope.

While capitalism is never likely to create a level playing field, state intervention may break with the irrationality of markets. Planning and urban policy need to work together if inequality is to be challenged. In this context, the feebleness of city deals becomes apparent. It is easy to be pulled into a deal by the prospect of a short-term gain. But a city deal will not balance the dynamics that perpetuate pronounced regional disparities.

5.99 per cent

Numbers can speak as loudly as words. The famous geographer David Harvey highlighted how local authorities were behaving like businesses in 1989. But the democratic process in the UK means that councils can hide their corporate behaviour from the people. Diversity in the performance of local government and divergent attitudes to the private sector mean that the illusion of choice can be revived from time to time. Furthermore, the downloading of blame onto the local state by central government may fool the citizen into thinking that austerity has changed the situation in a fundamental sense.

Fortunately, numbers can demystify the situation. Priceless: the Hidden Psychology of Value was made available to the public at £12.99. The author William Poundstone devoted a whole chapter to 99-cent stores. These retailers used ‘charm prices’ to persuade customers that they were getting a significant bargain.

The Corbyn surge was all about a ‘new politics.’ The problem is that many Labour councils are unwilling to abandon old strategies. The issue is that the public are seen as just another source of revenue. While the needs of citizens are not addressed because of the perceived imperative to pass on the dictates of the central state,  council tax rises way above inflation are being implemented in April.

The inflation-busting council tax rise hits poor people especially hard. This is in part because council tax is a priority debt. However, the council tax is also regressive; rich people pay a small proportion of their wealth to receive services. While local politicians may come up with a discourse about democracy, bills locally are going to increase by a hefty 5.99 per cent. People may want to vote for the Labour Party in council elections as a gesture that they support the national project, but the fact is that the typical council is a business because it sells itself as such.