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.


Clegg, game theory and halting the new Cold War

Nick Clegg did a disservice to his own party when he penned How to Stop Brexit. Many people are hostile to the Brexit process, but his argument fails to persuade the reader when it comes to strategy. Firstly, it fails to appreciate that Clegg is a completely damaged brand. Secondly, it argues that the uninspiring former Prime Minister John Major should be given a major political role in the future. Thirdly, it urges Europhiles to join the Conservative Party or the Labour Party, upsetting Liberal Democrats and everyone else who does not believe in reducing politics to a single issue. Fourthly, Labour Party members may be irritated by the inability of Clegg to appreciate the novelty of the Corbyn surge. Clegg reduces enthusiasm for Corbyn to a personality cult, ignoring the fact that an embryonic social movement has begun to evolve. He compares the popularity of Corbyn with his own fleeting moment in the sun, underestimating the extent to which the Labour leader has changed the political weather.

To be fair, Clegg does exhibit a surprising talent with his rhetoric. However, the Liberal Democrat punchbag leaned on Sam Macrory to produce content and style. Without the input from Macrory, the text would lack polish. Unfortunately, the way in which Clegg advises readers to write to party leaders is reminiscent of clictivism. An authentic Europhile campaign would trust people to use their own initiative.

The UK has not severed its links with the European Union yet. There is time for Brexit to be reversed. But the political forces identified by Clegg appear weak and divided. If the Labour Party changes its mind on the European issue, it is improbable that the argument of Clegg will have made a substantive difference. Momentum and the trade unions are likely to feed into the evolving policy debate within the Labour Party, while other party factions and think-tanks will continue to make their recommendations.

The deployment of nerve agent in the UK may impact on the Brexit debate. Whatever the truth of the serious allegations, many people might feel that the UK is at risk of being isolated on the world stage. The tit for tat diplomatic expulsions may remind individuals of Cold War manoeuvres, but the lack of an ideological battle means that the context is different. Both the UK and Russia have authoritarian aspects, and emotion should not cloud the decisions which are made.

It is not in the interest of the bulk of the British population for the sabre-rattling to continue. Jingoism will only work in favour of the elite. The government may puff out its chest by playing further games, but it would do well to focus on those policies which it must implement. As Theresa May is too weak to address the domestic agenda properly, she should be conciliatory with her European partners. The diplomatic incompetence of Boris Johnson is inappropriate for these times and the Prime Minister would enhance her position if she replaced him going forward. A new Cold War is not inevitable- constructive engagement is the best option to pursue.

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.

“One step forward, two steps back”

The retreat of Jon Lansman from the contest to be General Secretary of the Labour Party is a profound disappointment. The controversial founder of Momentum was defeated by the forces of conservatism. There is no way that the trade unions would concede significant power to party members without a fight.

Lansman had made his task much more difficult by being authoritarian in his running of Momentum. This meant that support for him in his own movement was lukewarm. Nor had he secured the backing of the influential Shadow Chancellor. Furthermore, there is some merit in the idea that it is the right time for Labour to have a female General Secretary.

However, Lansman was also faced with anti-Semitism and extraordinary hostility from some sections of the broader labour movement. Since the international financial crisis, conspiracy theories have proliferated. The hatred of Jews has intensified. While the Labour Party has taken the issue seriously, it has not been possible to eradicate the problem at all levels. The unfortunate confusion in some quarters about the difference between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel has only served to muddy the waters. Lansman has experienced anti-Semitism in the past and his recent friction with George Galloway was a reminder that he is a sensitive individual.

Lansman is a diminished figure after his defeat by the party machine. But he was right to attempt to inject democracy into the system. Ordinary Labour members may be grateful because he has shone a light on the complex workings of the party elite. His move also further exposed the reactionary nature of the journalist Nick Cohen. Cohen attacked union leaders without restraint and revealed his true character.  Perhaps Lansman should console himself by thinking on lines once set down by Lenin:

“The big pleasure (of having a united Party) was bound to outweigh, and did outweigh, the little annoyances (in the shape of the squabbling over co-option).”


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.

SKWAWKBOX and crowd management

The overt bias against Jeremy Corbyn in much of the media triggered the creation of sites like SKWAWKBOX. Pluralism in the production of content is a healthy thing in a country which aspires to be a democracy. Democracy is not the end of a process, but something which needs to be fought for on a continuous basis. And a diverse media is part of that struggle.

However, questions may be asked about SKWAWKBOX. Like any other producer of content, the site needs regular updates. This means that it may have a tendency to chase clicks. More serious is its hostility to Jon Lansman. Obviously, Lansman was instrumental in the creation of Momentum. Since then, he has made controversial decisions. But there is no objective reason why the veteran political operator should not have stood in the contest to be the General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Any political strategy has risks. And the move by Lansman did have the potential to shake things up. But turning the Labour Party into a democratic social movement cannot be done by stealth. The resistance to change is strong within the different party structures.

SKWAWKBOX is entitled to back a candidate for any post. However, its shrillness means that the reader may lose faith in its credibility as an information source. While Jennie Formby is a candidate with many appropriate qualifications, the excessive enthusiasm of SKWAWKBOX is not doing much for her campaign. Is SKWAWKBOX engaged in the manipulation of crowds, or does it have something valuable to say to its readers?