Like many among the politically engaged, I’ve probably alienated half the people I’ve ever known with ranty and slightly obsessive Facebook posts. As much as I love the quirky videos, the footage of grannies dancing, the brain teaser puzzles and the ever present montage of selfies and beloved pets, I tend to feel there’s bigger fish to fry. I also felt that way well before the political carnage of 2016 and 2017, when the world seemingly began to unravel, and at least half the UK population became well-informed political analysts overnight.
Everyone’s an expert
I recall an actress friend who went from posts asking “what’s this EU referendum all about?”, to relentlessly posting how leaving the EU would be the “best thing ever” for our country – all in the space of about a week. Whereas before she’d mostly shared pictures of herself looking glamorous, and links to her latest single available on iTunes, she suddenly became a mouthpiece for The Daily Mail and The Sun, with an army of Facebook and Twitter fans hanging off her every word. I knew full well she didn’t have a bloody clue what she was on about, and I found it agonising.
That’s the problem. In the age of spin and tribal politics, many feel its their duty to translate what’s going on – to make people ‘see the light’. Including me. I’m probably one of the worst offenders in fact. Some might be interested in what I have to say, but many more probably simply roll their eyes and ‘unfollow’. I’ve lost contact with more people than I’d care to admit due to insistent championing of political beliefs. And in all likelihood, I’m probably not alone. It was possibly a rare thing before 2016, but the EU referendum changed that. Now, people fall out left right and centre. (Pardon the pun).
Oh to go back in time, before David Cameron opened Pandora’s Box to satisfy Eurosceptics in his own party. That damnable referendum has overridden everything, forced traditionally important concerns for our country and economy into obscurity. Even changed the concept of what we traditionally perceive ‘left’ or ‘right’ – the UK is now a kind-of political wilderness; bleak chaos. I’m not sure we can go back, or that political discourse will ever be the same.
Profiting on chaos
Theresa May has deliberately seized upon that chaos with this snap general election. Many will vote Tory on June 8th out of sheer confusion, including working classes whose forebears would probably turn in their grave. So too will a fair majority of those disinterested in politics. Those same friends who chastise us for being “too involved” may well be lured in by the promise of “strong and stable leadership” as the easy option. The simplistic slogan is designed to appeal not only to the UK’s resurgent far-right, with its reference to “strength”, but also to those who are sick to death of the whole bloody thing. “Stability” is what they crave. An end to the drama.
Well, some of us do too. We’re just not prepared to stand back and watch liberty and true democracy sacrificed in the process.
Some of us hate the fighting, or that we’ve alienated friends and families who often don’t really give a shit. But we still feel a need to discuss. We’re compelled. It’s too important not to. So where do we end up, where do we go? We end up joining Facebook groups, where at least we run less risk of irritating people who formerly quite liked us. And these ‘groups’ are where the recipe for civil war is being concocted, make no mistake. Nobody’s listening to anyone – there’s just fury in every direction.
The ‘Heart of British Politics’
Why do we bother? Speaking for myself, it’s not only an area of interest, but I see discussion and debate as vitally important. Especially when people like my actress friend are actively forming their political beliefs upon what they’re reading in the tabloids and on social media. I justify to myself that if I manage to change even a few minds, cause anyone to think differently, or help anyone to recognise insidious stuff going on right under their nose, it’s not all in vain. However tiresome, there simply has to be a presence of resistance. We can’t give up can we?
There’s another dimension to this polarisation, and it’s the utter destruction of any middle ground. There’s no longer room for nuance, or those who read between the lines. Only a firm tribal allegiance, or complete disinterest. These Facebook groups generally either become absolutist echo-chambers rife with censorship, or insidious propaganda machines, also rife with censorship. Both are subject to the whims of power-drunk administrators, who view them as personal stomping grounds to throw their weight around. But in at least one example I know of, a popular and influential Facebook group (‘The Heart of British Politics’) is operated by a Conservative party employee, Suzan Walsh – who deliberately picks and chooses what gets posted by members. She even dabbles in sharing the odd faked photo herself.
I joined up following a recent article for EvolvePolitics, exposing Ms Walsh’s role in the Facebook group whilst concurrently acting as ‘Information Officer at the Conservative Party’. I wanted to see for myself what was going on. Ironically, it was Suzan herself who approved me, obviously unaware that I write for the same publication she and her representatives recently threatened with legal action:
I sadly confirmed quite quickly that indeed, the group merely masquerades as a place for debate and discussion. It’s little more than a thinly veiled right-wing operation to exert influence, slag off lefties, and slander Jeremy Corbyn. A place where right-wing brutes can verbally abuse liberals in greater detail than Twitter will permit in 160 characters. And whereas it’s apparently wrong and/or considered ‘bullying’ to inform people of pertinent facts (like what the administrator of a group does for a living), it’s OK for the group to slander Labour supporters as “retards” and worse without any redress whatsoever.
What’s worrisome is the group may actually appear ‘balanced’ or impartial to many of its near 83,000 members. On a rudimentary level, there are some posts from a pro-Labour point of view too, and yes, people like me are allowed to bite back. But the frequency of barrage-like slurs implying Corbyn is ‘incompetent’, that he’s a ‘terrorist-lover’, that he’s ‘antisemitic’, that Theresa May is the best thing since sliced bread… eg: the same Daily Mail, Spectator, Sun and Telegraph articles posted over and over again, well, you can’t help but see a pattern emerge. Especially when posts arguing something different are repeatedly rejected. Or when apparent figureheads of the group are personally posting things like this:
‘Abbott-gate’ was thrust upon us for the entirety of the day. You’d think one arithmetic gaff was the be-all and end-all of political relevance. The gentleman who posted this one, Michael Holt, is the same person Ms Walsh appealed to when I called her out on her selective ‘process’ within the group:
Further down the conversation, Ms Walsh accuses me of ‘bullying’:
Ms Walsh did not provide an example as requested, because it didn’t exist. I’m the furthest thing from a bully. If anything I’d see myself as an ‘anti-bully’ who won’t stand for it. Nonetheless, we’ve unbelievably reached a stage where unashamedly divisive and vindictive people complain they’re being bullied if and when they’re challenged with sentient argument. Trump has started a woeful trend in Western politics.
I’m actually dumbfounded that someone whose job title is to ‘relay information’ for a political party could be allowed to manipulate social media groups like this. Let alone be discovered disseminating falsified pictures/stories, and still, nobody in the mainstream picks it up. Perhaps it’s simply ‘small potatoes’? After all, thirty Tory MPs are being investigated for election fraud by Police forces all across the country. And now, even the Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party (a woman who yesterday locked the press in a cupboard) is potentially linked to allegations of financial misconduct too. How the hell did we get this point? How did such an unscrupulous and demonstrably corrupt party become so unaccountable for their crimes? It’s actually ridiculous. People can make light-hearted jokes about ‘Kim Jong May’ and the ‘Nasty Party’, but in reality, it’s the furthest thing from funny. It’s a level of corruption I never thought I’d see in my country.
We are ‘The 48%’
I’m a liberal, an ardent ‘remainer’, and a regularly touted ‘snowflake’ – so surely the liberal/remain groups are for me, right? Actually, no. And to be fair to ‘The Heart of British Politics’, at least they haven’t censored my comments and/or blocked me from the group. Yet. (If they see this piece, that may change.)
No, it’s my own ‘team’ that have done that, on more than one occasion.
I often find myself in a difficult position, identifying with Lib Dem policies, as well as some Labour, and some Green. Possibly even a few Tory! (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.) At the same time, my desire for the UK to remain part of the EU carries irrefutable weight. For the ethical/moral leader, I would choose Corbyn, no doubt. But I don’t agree with his policies on Brexit, and I certainly realise that in some constituencies, Labour have no hope at all. Like mine in East Surrey – which has been Tory for a mere century.
The largest pro-remain group on Facebook is ‘The 48%’. I became a member the day it originated, 24th June 2016. The same day I wrote a blog that went viral to thousands upon thousands of people, which was ironically later blocked by Facebook for being divisive. I’d nonetheless like to think I played a small role in the spirit of resistance that day, and it also prompted me being invited to write for The Canary. Skip forward less than a year though, I’ve been lambasted by Corbyn groups for being too Lib Dem/remain, and recently, for arguing Tim Farron isn’t actually a raging homophobe. (He’s just a Christian, deal with it.) I’ve also been blocked by Lib Dem/remain groups for arguing Corbyn isn’t actually the antisemitic/communist/terrorist-loving antichrist they paint him out to be either. It’s all or nothing; no sane balance to be found anywhere it seems.
Even though ‘The 48%’ were the group I most identified with, they were also the ones who physically blocked me. My crime? See for yourself:
In a nutshell, the group’s moderators want one ‘discussion’, and one alone. A complete echo-chamber in which only outright support for the Lib Dem ruse to thwart Brexit is tolerated. An extensive list of moderators close down comments and threads every which way; anyone who argues the situation more complex, or demanding of a different response is shut down instantly. Given that opposition to the Tories is taken as read, verbal assassination of Corbyn quickly became centre stage. I hated it, as did many others. But despite going out of my way to be polite, I was banished only minutes later for challenging this administrative ‘authority’.
I do think some of the moderators need to realise this group is “the 48%”, eg: anyone who didn’t want any of this nonsense to happen in the first place. That number includes a lot of people with a lot of different attitudes and beliefs as to how we rectify it now. Please stop deciding which of them get to speak.
I despair. The hypocrisy of a liberal group crying out against alleged abuse of democracy, but doing so by censoring its members and similarly abusing democracy? Even someone passionately on the same team? It just goes to show how everyone is now expected to fall in line with a single mantra alone. It’s downright dangerous if you ask me.
My genuine belief is we all need to start listening a bit more. That UK parties of the left (the Lib Dems, Labour, the SNP and the Greens) need to ally and find common purpose in defeating the Tories, because they are the real threat here. I wrote as much in a piece for EvolvePolitics the day of the snap election announcement. But just like the supposedly ‘liberal’ groups on Facebook, I was sad to see some readers genuinely disgusted that EP published the work of an author who sees things a bit differently. Isn’t that the point of balance, after all? A couple of people even vowed to discontinue their readership; I feared I’d no longer be welcome after only a couple of articles! Fortunately, EP were not threatened by actual freedom of expression, and I’m still here – still rambling. I wholly applaud them for allowing me a truly independent voice, not forcing me to toe a line or spoon-feed to existing readers. We should all be grateful for the publications that don’t tell their writers exactly what to write, while we still can.
There could quite feasibly come a point when we’ll all sorely miss the ‘ranters’ and trouble-makers. The simple opportunity to voice and/or hear different interpretations. Yes, it undoubtedly gets noisy out there, sometimes unbearably so. But when there’s no longer any counterbalance to what government and state-controlled media outlets tell us, when there’s only one version ever to be found, Orwell’s prediction will be well and truly underway. Once that domino falls, it’ll be a nigh-on irreversible.
Democracy is both precious and fragile, and must be protected. Those who would stifle it and censor opinion, skew and manipulate the truth; those who refuse to follow due process, to account for their actions publicly or hear the opposing arguments, THEY are its true enemies. A bit like these Facebook groups.
Also, a bit like our Conservative government.
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