I begrudgingly signed-up for Facebook some years ago, because it was simply easier to sign-in to mobile apps and other services which required authentication. I had no intention of using as it’s intended to be used. Of course, I eventually fell into the trap of using it for precisely that, and it quickly took the place of staying in touch with friends and colleagues the old fashioned way; i.e., phone calls, emails, and SMS text messaging. Before long I was using it to share stories and opinions about current affairs, politics and other articles from mainstream news-sites, blogs and comment threads on reddit, Google Plus, and other social media. I’d been suckered in.
Over here in the UK, at the moment, there is an unprecedented amount of rightwing propaganda permeating the proverbial airwaves. Even organisations which built their reputation on giving voice to a balance of views, have begun repeating verbatim government press releases, talking down the importance of pressure groups, and openly ridiculing political parties simply because they have policies which challenge the status quo. This is helped along by the overabundance of opinion formers masquerading as journalists, pushed in-front of the 24 hour rolling news cameras, to tell us what to think, when to think it, and when to pretend we never really thought it, as soon as the political winds blow from another direction.
Now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in these turbulent times, the ruling elite should become more and more blatant about their disregard for democracy, the open exchange of ideas, and an informed debate. Their track record for closing down anyone and anything which threatens to educate the electorate as to their true grip on the levers of power, runs throughout the history of the 20th century, culminating in the failings of the 9/11 commission, and the orchestrated collapse of the world financial system.
But what remained true throughout most if not all of these events, which have shaped our modern world, was the grip on reality which ordinary working people clung on to throughout the melee of misinformation being thrown at them by the press. No right thinking person, for example, took one look at the failings which led to the melt-down in the American mortgage market, and concluded that this was accidental – a catastrophic series of otherwise unrelated events, which couldn’t have been predicted or prevented. Indeed, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, analysts and economists were positively tripping over themselves to explain in lurid detail to anyone who would listen how and why this was a situation deliberately created by those who stood to gain the most from everyone else’s misery and loss.
We all knew, in other words – regardless of our particular political affiliations – that this was something beyond anything which could be fixed at the ballot box. The decisions were out of our hands. That is to say, that the vast majority of people knew then what they’re beginning to now forget — that there is such a thing as a ruling elite, and that their number one agenda is to make it impossible for ordinary people to seize any real power.
It is my contention that a major reason as to why people are beginning to forget this, is down to the way in which social media, Facebook in particular, erects a forth wall between real world friends, family and co-workers. It enables people to say out-loud what they would hesitate to say in polite company. It enables in-groups to attack out-groups with such efficiency, that far from its ostensible aims of bringing people closer together, it is in-fact creating more and more division among communities and as a consequence wrecking real-world friendships.
Your data in their hands.
As print newspapers transition from ink to 1’s and 0’s, and their readers move from paper to tablets and smartphones, it is natural that publishers who wish to stay in business should have a marketing strategy. A big part of the strategies used by these content providers, is one which uses Facebook as the jumping off point where readers discover further content. Clicking a link on your Facebook timeline, which opens on, say, the Guardian website, will launch the Guardian app on your smartphone. Some sites even design the layout of their mobile website in such a way that viewing the story you’re interested in is rendered virtually impossible unless you download and install their app first – where the content is properly formatted for reading on a smaller device. This means that when you click the ‘back’ button, after reading the article, rather than being directed back to Facebook, you’re instead landed on the front page of the website, where you’re more likely to read other stories, and in-turn share them on your Facebook timeline.
This isn’t done for your convenience. It’s done because, in the small print of the licence agreement, which most people agree to without actually reading, after installing a news app the vendor is immediately given the right to view your Facebook data whenever you read, share or comment on a story on your own timeline, your friend’s timeline, or in a private group. This enables the publisher to track stories you’re interested in, and match you to other readers in your socioeconomic bracket; your level of education, your work history, where you went on a first date, and so on. This valuable data is then sold-on to advertisers. This is where on-line newspapers generate the majority of their revenue.
It might be argued that as long as you’re smart about the information you share on your profile this could actually be a good way of keeping news services free to view. The problem is, Facebook makes it virtually impossible to restrict the amount of information you unwittingly share about yourself, simply by reading other posts, and commenting on them. We might think we’re being careful about the information we include in our personal biography page, for example, but it’s the information which can be gleaned from our ordinary day to day interactions which in-fact tell a much deeper story about who we are, how we think, how we vote, and how we view the world around us.
This is the data which can be used to manipulate the stories you see being shared by others on your timeline. It is also the data which can be used to make your Facebook posts visible to other users. Opting out of the systems which make this possible, lowers the chances of your voice being heard – even to the point that something you post might never be seen even by your friends, if Facebook’s algorithm decides on their behalf they’re more likely to be interested in something which contains metadata more valuable to them. It is this sinister way in which Facebook ‘games’ your data and mine, which explains my decision to leave the site for good.
No smoke without fire.
Just before Christmas 2015, at about 8:30pm, I set out to buy movie night snacks from my local convenience store. As soon as I stepped outside, there was an acrid smell of smoke in the air, and it was obvious something not too far from my front door was on fire. Sure enough, as I walked along a darkened path behind a small industrial estate which links one part of my housing estate to another, flames were lapping up the walls of a warehouse inside the compound. By the time I’d spoken to other residents, who assured me the fire brigade were on their way, and returned from the corner shop, the unit was fully ablaze, and the small path I’d walked along not 5 minutes earlier was engulfed in vile black smoke.
When I returned safely home via another route, I posted about this on Facebook. I was worried there might have been someone trapped inside the building. By this point there were blue flashing lights everywhere, and it was obvious this was a major incident.
The next day, as I was walking past the site again, I saw a small group of people working to clean the place up. They were using car headlights to see what they were doing in the dark of a cold and miserable wet December evening, inside a totally destroyed business unit. Still worried there might have been someone hurt, I walked over and asked if everyone was OK, and if there was anything I could do to help. You can literally see my front door from the entrance to the trading estate, and I was shaken by how close to home such a violent fire had reached.
One of the volunteers seemed weary of sharing anything with me at first. He assured me no-one had been inside when it caught fire, and went back to what he was doing. I then explained to a girl standing next to me that I was a local resident. I asked her what kind of business the unit housed. The previous night, when I’d briefly stood to watch the blaze, a passing motorists wound down his window to ask me if I knew what was going on, and suggested that it might have been an electrical fire, because the place was used as a TV repair shop.
The girl turned to me and said, “No. We were collecting for Syrian refugees. Two men were seen running away. The police said it was started deliberately.” It turned out, that the unit was being used by a local charity to collect food and clothing for people fleeing one of the bitterest wars currently raging in the middle-east. The police were treating the fire as an arsonist hate crime.
When I was in my teens, I volunteered every year to work on a street festival organised by the local borough council. We would host artists from around the world to perform music, street magic, high-wire acts, mime.. there were world-famous jazz musicians performing alongside local jam-bands; dancers from India, comedians from Canada, jugglers from Turkey… for two weeks my little town boasted one of the largest street festivals in Europe. People of all ethnicities would rub shoulders, and celebrate music and art and life. In the 20 odd years since then, how had we now become a town which saw arsonists attack a humanitarian charity at Christmas time?
This was the simple question I asked on a Facebook group called ‘People of Stockton’. The group is ostensibly a place to share information about the small part of North East England where I live. Some would post pictures of how our high-street had changed since the 1950s. Others would post personal stories about their life as a Stocktonian. There were people on the group I went to school with. Nostalgia reigned down on many of the group’s most popular threads. So I presumed the good folk of the town where I grew up would be ready willing and able to help our fellow Stocktonians clean up their fire damaged business, and re-stock it with blankets, tents and food, which were destroyed in the fire, destined for some of the most desperate people, currently tracking their way across Europe on-foot. How wrong I was.
Are you now or have you ever been a reader of the Daily Mail?
The first comment reply to the short appeal I posted to the group was from someone who insisted “They should help British people before they send our money overseas”, and who went on to list every stereotype in the book about who “these people” are, and why a fire which destroyed food and clothing intended for women and children was spuriously linked to something Prime Minister David Cameron had said about “encouraging them to come here”. To my great shame, this comment quickly received many ‘likes’.
So I suggested to the person, that this really wasn’t a place to discuss the geopolitical ramifications of the decades long failings in US and UK foreign policy, and that my only reason for posting the appeal was to help people from our town, as opposed to wherever he seemed to think “they” should “go back to”. He then proceeded to broadcast yet more hatred and was quickly joined by others – each receiving plenty of ‘likes’ for their highbrow and conscientious analysis of “bloody foreigners”, and how “our lads” are homeless as well; and “charity begins at home”. Again, my attempts to point out that I agree, hence the charity in question being quite literally five minutes from my home, fell on deaf ears.
Eventually, some people who did see I was simply trying to help chimed in, and scolded the naysayers for being so blinkered. Indeed one chap who had originally started out with the usual laundry list of tabloid opinions back-peddled slightly, when he was challenged on whether or not he supported the arsonist attack.
The next morning I woke to a private message in-box full of comments from people expressing their disgust at my appeal post being removed from the Facebook group. And, indeed, upon closer inspection I also found that I had been banned from the group, and the post had been removed with no explanation from the moderators as to why.
I explained my disappointment at this in a short post on my timeline, while expressing my hope that the people who moderate the group had also removed the people who’d posted blatantly racist comments, and received many ‘likes’ for them in return.
Later that evening, when I pulled into my usual parking spot, outside my house, a fairly well-built man was standing on the pavement and staring directly at me as if he’d waited for me to arrive. I wound the window down, and asked him if he needed me to move. Parking in my area is tight, and at first I thought he might be making sure no-one took the spot. He shook his head without saying anything, and as I jumped out of the car, another car pulled up behind me and the man inside began talking to the man on the pavement. As I walked towards my house, the other car drove away, and the guy on the pavement began walking behind me. As I turned to walk down my path, I looked back, and he continued to stare right at me, before going into a house directly opposite mine.
I took this as a warning. In the original post, to the Facebook group, I had appealed for anyone who knew about the arsonists to go to the police. I live in the sort of area where the police don’t usually bother to turn up if you call them to complain about some of the commonplace antisocial behaviour which the disaffected youth of Stockton reign down upon areas like mine precisely because they know the police are overstretched and unable to attend in a timely fashion.
Watching you, watching them.
I’m not suggesting I have hard and fast proof that this was indeed a warning, nor that it was issued by the people who’d posted to or took down the post I made to the Facebook group. I am however saying that what we really mean by the phrase, ‘a climate of fear’, is fleshed out and made all-too-real by my experiences then, and by events which led to my subsequent decision to leave Facebook altogether earlier this week.
In the two months following the fire, and my appeal for help in catching the arsonists which was removed from the Facebook group, every other post on my timeline began to take on a sinister tone. If it wasn’t people regurgitating the full gamut of anti-immigration noise generated by UKIP, and other rightwing groups, it was people I’d never heard of requesting to add me as a ‘friend’ only to immediately reveal themselves as brainless morons. On some days, I would find myself with 2 or 3 “friends” requests, from people I’d simply never heard of, all of which claimed to have at least 5 people in common with those already on my friends list.
When the leader of the Labour Party, of which I am a member, recently visited the refugees living in squalid camps outside Calais, in France, for a solid two days I had to remove, block and report people desperate to goad those of us who support Jeremy Corbyn into a fight about his links to the Stop The War Coalition. Many of these posts seemed completely devoid of any understanding of what this group stands for, much less what it stands against. None of these people showed the slightest bit of interest in having their opinions challenged, nor indeed even a basic interest in defending their views without recourse to racist imbecilic misspelled claptrap.
I’ve also seen posts on my timeline from otherwise perfectly nice people, who I am happy to call my personal friends, expressing the view that “refugees should be put in camps”, and that the camp which might be particularly well suited to “these people” – many of whom are fleeing the tyrannical Saudi Arabian regime – would be a giant refugee centre currently standing unused and empty in, you guessed it, Saudi Arabia.
The lack of thought put into most of this rhetoric is mind-blowing. Many of the people who reposted a story about the refugees from the Daily Mail website, which suggested the Saudi camps should be used to house those fleeing conflict before they leave the area, did so at the same time as recognising World Holocaust Memorial Day — and all with seemingly no sense of the supreme irony at play in their stance on a refugee crisis happening here and now in 21st century Europe. Even pointing this out to them was lost in a cloud of “Jeremy Corbyn hates this country”, change the subject, fingers-in-your-ears, stomp your feet idiocy, on a scale which embarrasses me to say I ever counted some of these people as friends.
And that’s really the point I’m ultimately trying to make here. Friends always have differing opinions. But they talk about them face to face. We are far more likely to take on-board what someone is saying to us if they do it calmly, giving enough space for us to respond in-turn. That doesn’t happen on Facebook. The usual conventions for communicating ideas have been abandoned to the number of ‘likes’ next to an icon of a blue thumb – as if this and this alone dictates whether or not someone is worthy of attention.
The shades of grey, which exist in-between all opinions, have been pressed to the margins, and coagulated into a giant battering ram ready to be deployed whenever the slightest chink in someone’s armour is exposed. We are being pitted against each other in service of a click-bait algorithm used to generate vast sums of money for a corporation which pays no tax. I simply refuse to play this game any longer.