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.

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?


Books. Apparently everybody loves them. Especially on World Book Day. What’s not to love? Nothing. Then why does the average British citizen reportedly spend about £60 a year on them? Given that many of the books we purchase are gifts, that’s not a huge amount of discretionary spending. I guess there’s the competition from television, social media, alcohol, caffeine, films, and so on. And then there are the remaining libraries which give us free reading material.

Perhaps it is contemporary bookstores which are killing our consumption of books. Before the advent of Amazon, ‘real-world’ bookshops were amazing places. It was always a pleasure to browse. But now people know that purchasing books online can be highly cost-effective. Amazon has impacted on the number and diversity of bookshops in the UK. Furthermore, the multinational corporation has taught readers to think about price more frequently than they once did. Partly as a result of the concentration of capital, some of the best independent bookstores are no more.

The squeeze on real incomes is real. But when we look at a book money is not what we should be thinking about in the first instance. Use value must get a look in. Few authentic book lovers can enjoy purchasing books via Amazon- it is a process which lacks soul.  Ordinary bookstores have been hollowed out by the power of Amazon because we are thinking about exchange value prematurely. Books are marketed at us in a bland manner.

Many of us go into a shop with a maximum price in our heads. This serves as an anchor. If the item can be obtained for less than the price then we’ll part with the cash. If not, we’ll look for another product to satisfy our want. This may be fine when buying electrical equipment, but it seems the wrong approach to take when it comes to a book. Books live. And change lives.  They will only do this if we realise there is more to life than money.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler

International bestsellers do not always do much more than entertain. However, this example has been mentioned in the same breath as The Name of the Rose. With the text being praised by John Le Carré, reading it was deemed to be a worthwhile activity. Nevertheless, the reading experience was a mixed bag.

Any book which mentions the persecution of Jewish people is likely to have traumatic elements. But if a story is structured as a mystery then the realistic aspects of the work are dimmed. This specific narrative takes the reader on a convoluted trip- there is simply an excess of plot to carry.

When plot over-determines the content of a tale then there are consequences for the plausibility of the characters. It is difficult to take things seriously when a writer gives themselves too much to do.

Richard Zimler does seem to allow some humour to creep into the mystery. This technique does work as a mechanism to keep the reader turning the pages. But the moments of illuminations are few. Interestingly, Zimler appears aware of the literary limitations of his craft:

“An absurd disappointment buries itself in my gut, is linked to the knowledge that life is not a book, does not hold margin notes explaining difficult events.”

No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmby

Katharine Quarmby is a formidable journalist who has worked for The Economist and several newspapers. This text tackles overt discrimination against travelling people in the UK. It highlights examples of political skulduggery by local authorities, while examining how tough life can be for those with a nomadic cultural background.

Quarmby does not simply stress negative experiences like mass evictions. She also pays attention to the rich tapestry of Romany culture. Careful to go beyond the stereotypes perpetuated by the mass media, she gives an insight into the lives of people who have a rich heritage.

Sadly, overt discrimination against the Roma has not been confined to the towns and cities of the UK. The populations of Eastern Europe have sometimes shown little compassion to the ethnic group in question.  The long shadow of the Holocaust also lingers.

At a time when international fascism seems to be on the rise, learning more about the way travelling people are treated is timely. Quarmby may not have composed a particularly theoretical work, but her careful research packs an authentic punch.

All that is Solid by Danny Dorling

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848.

Professor Danny Dorling takes a jaundiced view of the British housing market. Dorling shows awareness of the role that housing has played in economic crises in Spain, the United States, Ireland and Iceland, but his focus remains closer to home. Dorling is critical of the fact that housing is widely used as an investment. He connects this individualist behaviour with inefficiency, homelessness and inequality. He attempts to link the volatility of the housing market to the wider difficulties of modern capitalism.

However, Dorling fails to structure his argument effectively. A surplus of facts and illustrations clutter up his rambling text. Furthermore, the book is divided into awkward sections which mean that there is a certain amount of repetition. The reader is treated to some insights into the way some people live now, but a tighter use of theory might have yielded even better results.

Nevertheless, the book is a valuable read for people who have illusions about the nature of contemporary housing associations. The academic rightly puts the transfer of local authority stock to social landlords in the category of privatization. He writes:

“This becomes especially clear viewed alongside all the changes that have occurred to make housing associations less and less socially motivated and more and more profit-driven. Such changes include the increase in salaries now paid to their top officials.”