Saturday, March 24, 2018

Democratize Social Media

The following is from Left Horizons (UK) (images added)

Editorial: democratize social media
March 21st 2018

The data amassed by Facebook and the alleged use of this by the secretive Cambridge Analytica company has raised important issues for Labour and trade union activists. It is long over-due that there should be a discussion on the role of social media within the labour movement and, perhaps even more pertinently, in the struggle for a socialist future. The problem is, of course, that many of today’s best and most hard-working activists cut their teeth in the decades before social media was around. Information Technology as a mass phenomenon is barely over two decades old, and social media perhaps half of that.

The questions that need to be asked and discussed revolve around the extent to which social media is a positive factor in the struggle for socialism and to what extent it is an obstacle to be overcome. We also need to ask how social media can best be managed and made accountable to the majority of the population, the working class.

This not the occasion to comment in great detail on the structures of the big tech giants, but it must be remembered that they are first and foremost profit-making companies. They have all been responsible for tax-dodging on an industrial scale and there are regular reports in the British press about the piddling amounts of taxes being paid by the likes of Google and Facebook, despite hundreds of millions of pounds in turnover and profit.These companies run rings around the tax authorities, by using their complex international structures to shift profits from one offshore location to another.

The social media provided by these big tech companies is now ubiquitous and across the whole planet it is dominated by only five firms: Facebook, which also owns Whatsapp and Instagram; Google, which also owns Youtube; Yahoo, which owns Flickr and Tumblr; and then Twitter and Linkedin. These companies, respectively, have 1.9bn, 1.5bn, 161m, 271m and 187m accounts. Although obviously many people will have multiple account across all these platforms, these numbers are nevertheless staggering and they are rising relentlessly.

The potential of these companies to harvest ‘meta’ data – a broad range of links, contacts and even a lot of personal detail – on on their billions of customers is mind-boggling and it is clear that the state, both in the UK, the USA and elsewhere is now fully equipped to do just that.

Britain’s facility at GCHQ and the American National Security Agency have been storing and keeping vast amounts of data for years. Wikileaks released information two years ago about the ‘PRISM’ programme of the NSA which has a colossal capacity for data collection, storage and retrieval. These agencies have the technical capacity to eavesdrop on conversations anywhere in the world where there is a mobile phone.

According to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, (writing in his book, WhenGoogle met Wikileaks), Google is thoroughly integrated into the United States military-intelligence-surveillance complex. He mentions Eric Schmidt, the executive Chairman of Google from 2001 to 2017 and Alphabet Inc. from 2015 to 2017, as someone who cut his teeth working for ‘agencies’ connected to the Pentagon. Google, according to Assange, has made “petabytes of data” available to the US intelligence community through its PRISM programme.

Google helped to launch a satellite from which it shares data with the US intelligence community. Its research into navigation and robotics, often through subsidiary companies like Boston Dynamics, is integrated into, and accessible to, research of the military-industrial complex. Assange quotes a sinister comment from the New York Times nearly twenty years ago:

“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps” (Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times, 28 March, 1999).

The particular issue in the news today – the Cambridge Analytica (CA) company – is an example of how sections of the ruling class are gearing up to use social media in the political sphere. Although the Chief Executive Officer of CA has been suspended because of his exposure by a Channel 4 documentary, this suspension is little more than damage-limitation. The company was clearly set up by an old-Etonian in the first place – and bank-rolled by a wealthy hedge fund – to act as a political vehicle, not just to make a profit.
Awww! How Sweet
Cambridge Analytica claims to have played a key role in the election of Donald Trump. The company head of data, on the Channel 4 programme, boasted of the role they had played: “…when you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by three million votes but won the electoral college vote, that’s down to the data and the research…you did your rallies in the right locations, you moved more people out in those key swing states on election day. That’s how we won the election…[Trump] won the election by 40,000 in three states. The margins were tiny…”

Alexander Nix, the suspended chief executive of CA boasted on the same TV expose about the ability of his company to pull the wool over the eyes of the authorities.  “…they’re not technical”, he said, referring to politicians, “They don’t understand how it works”.

Whistle-blowers who worked for social media companies have only confirmed what many have suspected for a long time, that huge amounts of personal data have been ‘harvested’ by outside bodies. Sandy Parkilas, previously the platform operations manager at Facebook told the Guardian (March 21st) “My concerns were that all of the data that left Facebook servers to developers could not be monitored by Facebook, so we had no idea what developers were doing with the data.” Asked what control Facebook had over the data used by developers, he added, “Zero, absolutely none. Once the data left Facebook servers, there was not any control…” The ‘blind’ suspicion that many Facebook users have expressed, that their likes, dislikes and activities are ‘monitored’ is therefore completely founded on truth. There are no effective controls and, indeed, it is likely that meta-data on all Facebook users is stored somewhere at GCHQ or NSA, or both.

We should not forget another aspect of the misuse of social media, in the form of automated accounts, so-called robot accounts, or just ‘bots’. These are accounts set up in the thousands, using apparently real people’s names, and they can be managed on this large scale by only a handful of technicians. Their purpose is to feed information, usually as links or short comments or tweets that support a particular political point of view. By using a large number of bot-generated posts, all apparently from bona-fide people, the impression can be given that a particular point of view is more widely supported than it really is. It is not only the Russians who are masters at this – the Israeli Government too has a very well-funded and accomplished IT propaganda wing that is active on social media.

There is no point in just being paranoid, however. One could reasonably ask, what does it matter if the NSA or GCHQ knows the whereabouts of every activist in the British labour movement? It would take an army of observers, even using alogrithms to weed out key words, to keep tabs on every malcontent. Moreover, the ‘malcontents’ are growing in number week by week.

Being more positive about modern technology, there is no doubt that in the information age news and information is disseminated at lightning speed all around the world. We could couple that with the fact that it seems to be proving harder and  harder to maintain secrets. Capitalism as an economic system is not only based on greed and corruption, but also on a veil of secrecy that hides the truth from a literate and intelligent population.

Increasingly, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, that veil is lifted and the public get a glimpse of the dirty dealings that go on behind closed doors. The organisation Wikileaks is itself testimony to that. In recent years we have had a succession of scandalous revelations about secret diplomacy and, above all, about tax-dodging and money laundering. The Pentagon papers lifted the veil on secret US diplomatic e-mails and then the Panama papers and the Paradise papers spilled the beans on tax-dodging.

The dissemination of this information has definitely filtered through to the social consciousness of millions of workers and in some cases has had a direct effect on fermenting big political events. In Julian Assange’s book, he quotes the former Tunisian propaganda minister, after the first stirrings of the ‘Arab Spring’ overthrew the regime of Ben Ali. The Wikileaks releases at that time, he said, were “the coup de grace, the thing that broke the Ben Ali system.” Within a month of Ben Ali being overthrown, there were civil uprisings or protests in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, Oman and even Saudi Arabia. Social media certainly played a role in galvanising these protest movements and uprisings.

Tories outspend Labour on social media advertisement
Here in the UK, it is thought that social media had a significant effect on the general election in 2015 and even more so in 2017. In the month leading up to the deadline for registration for the 2017 election, 1.76 million under-35-year-olds registered to vote.  This was higher than the figures for 2015 (1.39m) and 2016 (1.28m) and without a doubt social media played a role in getting younger voters out, the majority of whom voted Labour.

According to the BBC’s Media Show (June 14, 2017), several new social media outlets and websites made contributions to getting young people to vote. London Economic, for example, was a site set up to counteract the negative reporting on Corbyn in the national newspapers and on TV. They claim that one of their articles had 1.6m hits and hundreds of thousands of shares on social media. Another relatively new site, Evolve Politics, reporting on issues like housing and the NHS, claimed that their Facebook page had 1.3 million hits in May 2017and a reach of 17 million over last week of the election period, despite only having been going for a year. On the same radio programme, a Daily Mail journalist lamented the declining influence of papers like his.  “They just don’t have the same influence they had 25 years ago…”, he moaned. The Tory press, with a combined sale of around 9 million copies, do not reach more than a quarter of the total electorate.

Social media is actively used by labour movement activists today. There is hardly a meeting organised anywhere that is not advertised on social media. However, it is important that we also understand the limitations of social media. Discussions, arguments and issues are raised in millions of conversations on Facebook on a daily basis. Millions of tweets are posted on Twitter every day. But what is exchanged is at best a few pithy phrases, perhaps a paragraph or two, and not a few insults as well. One thing is clear, a proper discussion cannot take place on social media. There is no depth, no development and no possibility of an extended and rounded exposition of a point of view. On Twitter, even doubling the number of characters from 140 to 280, only a headline can be put forward. More often than not, Facebook and Twitter are used as signposts – to point readers in the direction of a properly-developed argument or point of view, or facts and figures somewhere on another website.

In the same way that we should recognise the limitations of social media in having serious discussions, we should acknowledge the limitations of so-called ‘e-democracy’ in supposedly promoting accountability and transparency. As with social media, e-democracy tends towards what is partial, shallow and transient. If democracy needs to be informed to be meaningful, then e-democracy is sorely lacking in information and it tends, in any case, to be controlled by those who manage the discussions and the e-election platform. When the Lansman coup took place in Momentum there was much discussion about the coup being allegedly in favour of increasing the participation of members through ‘direct’ democracy. This has turned out to be a sham. In the most recent electronic voting – on representation to Labour’s constitutional inquiry – it got a maximum of around 3800 participants, which is between 11 and 16 per cent participation, depending on which membership figures are taken.

Social media has its uses, therefore, but it also has its limitations. When there has been serious social unrest, as has happened in Egypt and, more recently in Sri Lanka, governments are not averse to shutting down social media altogether. In the struggle for socialist change the drawbacks of social media need to be understood and worked around. As long as activists in the labour movement are using social media to facilitate the organisation of meetings and activities that is all very well, but social media is not in and of itself a substitute for real, face-to-face meetings and for organisations of real people.
In the final analysis, it is not the means of conveying the message, but the message itself, that will move people into political activity. It is not social media, but austerity that is driving millions of workers across the globe in the direction of political activity and shaking up political consciousness to an unprecedented degree.

In the last general election, according to the Electoral Commission, the Tories spent four times as much as Labour on Facebook adverts (£2.1m compared to £577,000) and twice as much on Google advertising  (£560,000 compared to £254,000). Yet in every age group brought up with social media, Labour had an overwhelming majority of support. It was the message, not the medium, that counted. That, and the actual presence of a Labour leader who spoke at more than a hundred meetings and rallies around the country, by-passing the hostile national press and – to a degree – also by-passing social media.
Future success in achieving a real and lasting socialist transformation may well be facilitated by social media, at least in its early stages, but it can only be guaranteed in its fullest sense by real working class people, in meetings, demonstrations and strikes. Social media may help, but the real job to be done is on the streets, in the communities and in the workplaces.

Then a socialist government could ensure that social media is not subject to the secretive and rigid control of a handful of multi-billionaires, but would be owned and democratically managed by users and subscribers, with the support of IT specialists and elected bodies. The terms of operation of social media platforms would be open to scrutiny and their use of personal  data tightly subscribed and, in any case, transparent. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica issue has raised important issues for us in the labour movement and we should use the opportunity to discuss all the ramifications and implications for the struggle for a socialist future.

[When Google met Wikileaks, by Julian Assange, published by Navayana, 2014]
March 21 2018

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