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.



“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).”


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?

Celebrity politics

When there was talk of Oprah Winfrey running for the American presidency, there must have been many people who were alarmed at the prospect. Whilst the authoritarianism of Donald Trump has shone a light on the dysfunctional political system, a celebrity-based challenge to his hegemony would indicate that elite Democrats no longer have any respect for the public.

The problems with celebrity politics are many. Firstly, there is entitlement. Secondly, there is political inexperience. Thirdly, there is distance from the lived experiences of the people. Fourthly, there is the disruption to the traditions of rational debate. Overall, the worry is that politics can degenerate into a ‘like’ festival.

There is much to admire about Ms Winfrey in terms of her empathy and entrepreneurship. But that does not mean that the American public deserve a marketing context when the next presidential election comes around. The Democrats should be able to offer something other than neoliberalism when confronted by the Republican onslaught. The defeat of Hillary Clinton should have taught Democrats not to be complacent. A feminist challenge to the Republican patriarchy could be astute, but it should speak to the ordinary concerns of struggling Americans.


Strikes in the Ideological State Apparatus

When staff at universities go on strike, any government should be concerned. Despite the efforts of bureaucrats, universities are places where different types of learning can occur. This does not usually matter, but it means that there is always scope for radicalisation to happen. Lecturers and students can begin to feel that they have political power. Furthermore, the experience of striking can change people for good.

Louis Althusser was clear that the education system was an Ideological State Apparatus. This means that education plays a key role in reproducing the values of the ruling class. However, a strike interrupts the standard operation of the system. Even if it is unsuccessful, strike action throws up questions about the status quo.

The current strike action affecting British universities is officially about pensions. But it would appear that discontent among staff has been growing for some time. The advent of the neoliberal university has been stressful for workers in the sector. Charging students huge sums for their education has been controversial. When education is treated as a commodity then this risks alienating educators. Even if the ostensible trigger of the strike is addressed, it may well be that industrial action breaks out over other issues like academic workload.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of a strike in advance. But if the government cares about the education of its citizens it would do well to work quickly to bring the different sides of the dispute together. The leader of the Labour Party has not distanced himself from the strikers and this has kept the ball in the Tory court. Strikes have unintended consequences and the authorities have seemingly been remiss in their treatment of employees.

Does the British media hate goodness?

“Goodness” may be hard to define. However, recent days have led me to think that the media in the UK is on a crusade to discredit ‘do-gooders’ of all types. Anybody who tries to do something positive is regarded with cynicism by jaundiced hacks.

Any international charity will have engaged in dubious activities if one looks close enough. The vitriol directed against Oxfam for issues in 2011 was disproportionate. In the same year as the alleged crimes took place, the UK was engaged in a dubious war in Libya. This led to a protracted civil war and an exodus of people from that country. Yet the British press largely ignores the legacy of that conflict.

Matthew D’Ancona is a columnist in The Guardian who claims to find it despicable that some people are unconvinced by the importance of the story about Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged indiscretions in the 1980s. The Cold War ended in 1989 and everybody on the left is tired by the attempts to portray Corbyn as a communist. Corbyn is a democratic socialist who stood on a reformist manifesto. Who said what to whom way back when seems to be largely irrelevant when the UK is in such a mess.

Being a writer is tough, especially if one has tight deadlines. But while pleasing corporations may be acceptable, destroying the idea of goodness is going a bit too far. Young people are having to make their way in a competitive society which punishes failure excessively. They need to be reassured that most people in charities and most socialists are not so bad. Obviously, some socialists are hypocrites and everyone makes mistakes, but journalists should think about how they would fare if every single detail of their lives was scrutinised. It is no wonder that newspaper circulations have slipped significantly in recent times.