Categories
Book reviews book shops

I know the date the world will end

Every generation, someone says that – and there are other favourite dramatic ideas that come round again and again. And when they do, people rally to them so eagerly. What is belief, that it can light such fires? Some get involved because they’re just longing to believe something. Some get involved because it’s such fun trying to shoot down a stupid idea (go on, admit it – are you one of the ones who clicked through to this blog to tell me I’m deluded, and that I do NOT know when the world will end?)

Most of us (I think) laugh at those ideas about illuminati and lizards and things but most of us have also, at one time or another fallen for ‘the myth of the day’. Perhaps it was the one about how leaving the EU would automatically make us rich and powerful, or the one about Jeremy Corbyn being anti-semitic, or the one about COVID being a government plot (or a Bill Gates plot). Or perhaps you reckon those are true, and some of the things I believe are red herrings. Please don’t worry about that – I know either of us could be right or wrong on some of them.

Are you sure the world is round?

Cover - the end of the world is flat by simon edge

Surely no-one would doubt that….. Surely? ……. What many of us are currently worried about is how quickly and efficiently those mad ideas spread, now we have social media, and that is why I’m recommending a Simon Edge novel today. He planned the book with one particular wild-idea effect in mind but he chose his own myth – that of the world being flat, and imagined how someone well placed to do so might spread the idea.

I asked Simon how he found out how it was done. He really appeared to have a startling amount of inside information. Turns out, he didn’t. He told me he’d looked at a series of the plague-like myths that had flown round the world, looked at the people who appeared to be behind them, and asked himself how he would go about such a project. Read this book! I think he’s right!

I asked which particular plague-like myths he had looked at. He replied…

Part of the power of social media is that it allows us to sort ourselves into self-selected bubbles where certain narratives dominate and, in some cases, go completely unchallenged.

During Brexit, the Leave campaign worked out they could use Facebook to target a particular anti-foreigner line to anyone they thought would be receptive. Remainers never even saw the ads – which meant the other side could get away with whatever false claims they wanted.

Twitter doesn’t permit that kind of covert operation, because all posts are available for everyone to see (unless you’re blocked). Nevertheless, it does organise people into echo chambers which can be immensely deceptive. If you support a certain party at an election and you spend a lot of time on Twitter, you can get a nasty shock when not everyone in the real world votes the same way as your bubble.

In those bubbles, misinformation and disinformation can spread like wildfire. The anti-vax movement has come out of nowhere, gaining extraordinary traction. My hunch is that it stems in large part from fear of needles: the entire conspiracy is a way of refusing the jab without admitting to the phobia.

Meanwhile two-thirds of Republicans still believe the November 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, despite zero evidence. That’s frightening: if they sincerely believe the election was rigged, which they genuinely do, it’s no wonder they’re angry and mutinous.

So those are three pretty major con tricks, but the one that drives me up the wall is the distortion of my own history. No, a transwoman didn’t throw the first brick at the Stonewall riots, because the person in question a) was a gay man and b) wasn’t even there until much later. This narrative has been deliberately created for political reasons, to make ‘LGBT’ seem like some natural grouping, rather than an invention of the past six years. Thanks in large part to social media, it has stuck fast.

– Simon Edge, author of The End of the World is Flat

You’re probably with Simon on some of those issues and not others – but either way, we all need to understand how the plague-ideas spread, and what the consequences can be.

The consequences of believing your own soc media bubble

My own favourite example of the blinding effect of social media is the recent battle for the top job at Unite. Looking on Facebook and Twitter, I was sure, like most of the people I knew (on Facebook and Twitter) that it was a battle between Howard Beckett and Steve Turner, and we were all worried about whether the vote would split between those two, and allow a third candidate, Gerard Coyne, to get the job. Well, we all know what happened. There were FOUR candidates. But one of those candidates wasn’t spending so much time battling for our social media likes. She was touring the country, talking to Unite members about their workplaces. Guess who blind-sided all of us, and won the top job!

Sharon Graham, GS of Unite

If you are one of those who *did* notice Sharon Graham, you will understand why those of us who *did* think sex matters had a good old laugh the day the social media hacks finally noticed us. On the left, one poor soul who thought the mysterious appearance of a journalist who wanted to talk about women – lesbians in particular – must have been nobbled by some kind of BBC Stazi. On the right, a bunch of his friends who thought we must have come out of nowhere. In their twitter-bubbles, they had actually convinced themselves that only ‘transphobes’ and conspiracy theorists knew, or cared, about why sex matters.

But battles over delusions started long before social media. Why else have we all heard of the Spanish Inquisition?

Let’s face it, we’ve learned to expect them

If you haven’t been involved in any of the battles of our generation, I think it’s really important to better understand how the rich and the powerful manipulate the public conversation, so please consider reading Edge’s novel, and join the conversation about how they happen, and how societies can find their way back to demanding evidenced truths.

If you have been involved in any of those battles, I think it’s really important that you get some relaxation, therapy and reassurance that you’re not mad. Edge’s novel will do that for you. Read it!

Cover - the end of the world is flat by simon edge

It’s also a seriously good laugh – especially Edge’s examples of what passes for conversation on Twitter. I really did hurt my ribs, reading those.

Buy The End of the World is Flat from Foyles

Categories
activism Labour media Politics

The slings and arrows of outrageous social media

When you set up a forum or a social media group, the software sets out a series of steps for you which assume an authoritarian hierarchy. It assumes you are ‘the administrator’ – although you have the option of setting up further administrators. Then it asks you to specify the moderators (sort of electronic grand viziers) and you write the rules. You then get to decide who can post stuff, who can see stuff, and a host of other things like whether admins or moderators get to see, and pass or decline posts, before or after they appear on the page.

You also, of course, have the inalienable right to ‘switch off’ anyone who, after you have made your personal interpretation of your rules, has committed a cardinal sin. It is fascinating to watch these groups emerge and evolve. If you watch with this perspective in mind, you see dictators rise and fall, you see oligarchies, democracies, autonomous collectives and every other permutation of human organisation developing and falling.

But the software was designed with dictatorship in mind, and where humans manage to create something else, they do so ‘against the tide’, as it were. They manage it surprisingly often. Three social media situations in my personal online world this week caused me to do some serious thinking.

Who would fardels bear?

  1. The temptation to rule

I’m currently a despot in one social media group, which I set up with another person who then disappeared. I’ve posted an appeal for two more volunteers which so far, members are managing not to notice. I can just feel those power-muscles twitching – come on, comrades! Quick, volunteer before I become immovable!

2. People power bites back

Elsewhere, a large, locally focused political group (around 1000 members) was set up with two administrators (always dodgy that – if you’re going for dictatorship, have one or three, then you can’t come to an impasse, with one saying ‘yes’ and one saying ‘no’). This group had a rule with massive room for interpretation:  local issues only, admins to decide what counts as ‘local’. How big is local? How far do national stories impact on local elections, and thereby become local issues?

No surprise that it became a point of contention. (If you’re going for any kind of system of management, have rules that are not wide open to interpretation). Personally, I would have resolved it by saying okay, if you think a national and/or party-political issue is relevant to local elections, please post with a comment saying why, and what the local discussion point is. Another option would be to do the hands-on moderator thing and just delete any posts that you don’t consider local.

Yet another option would be to tell people off for doing it, and if they do it again, boot them out. That happened once too often in this particular group, and the organic nature of human social groups came into play. Quite a few members felt the people who’d been booted out mattered. Some (myself included) made “I’m leaving this group” statements and left. Others argued the decision on the page. Someone set up a poll, and lots of others joined in both the poll and the discussion in the comments after it.

To me, it was all very interesting, and I’d expect the group to be the better for it. To the administrator and the grand viz… sorry, admin two (or was it moderator?) It was a ‘horrendous situation’. People got very upset and switched their accounts off entirely, and an attempt has been made to go back to the original rule, and a warning about breaking it. No progress there, then. I suspect another rebellion will happen, somewhere down the line.

Proud contumelies

3. Partisan administration

Meanwhile, in a national Labour discussion group with around three and a half thousand members, someone posted an article from a lefty Jewish website, and one of the three admins rejected it. The Jewish poster messaged an appeal to an admin, and was angrily told that his post was ‘contentious’.  Well, you do hear things about Labour and anti-semitism, and I personally have the impression that the current leadership of Labour are very agin socialist Jews so I tried posting another Jewish socialist article to test the situation. It was deleted with no message to me, but a telling off to the original poster for ‘telling’.

I considered starting a revolution in that group, then I thought about what strange little worlds these are, and about how upset the (now self-deleted) admin of that local group was and I thought nah, I won’t fight this one, because…

Strutting your hour on the stage

What we really need to remember, whilst observing and or participating in all this stuff, is that admins are not really in charge; that over and above all these lessons in human organisation, there is this thing called the CEO – because after all, very few popular social media sites are open source. Most of them are profiteering companies, standing ready to switch off any group that they feel is seriously interfering with where they want their profit-spinning content to be going.

If the boss hasn’t switched your group off, your group is not doing anything they consider seriously threatening. If the boss has switched your group off (I know of one very big, very politically relevant Instagram account that disappeared this week) if that happens to your group, you should probably congratulate yourself for giving the system a serious scare, find another platform and KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING.

If that hasn’t happened to your group, stay cool and just regard it all as lessons in human society. Try not to get upset about the fate of little worlds, and plug on…. or not, if you have a better idea. Two of the players in those dramas I describe above (sorry about me waxing Shakespearian with the titles, it just got me that way) – two of those players got so upset they switched their accounts off. Maybe they even deleted them. But don’t worry, girls and boys – even if they did that, they are probably still alive out there in the world. You could even go and have a coffee with them, as long as you know how to contact them – surely you haven’t been depending on soc media messaging to contact people?

Friends

There are social media contacts, and there are friends. If your social and political life is largely online, make sure you have phone numbers or email addies for the people who matter to you. As to real friends, for heaven’s sake, know who you can trust, and have real world contact details for them (addresses for the people you *really* trust and *actually* know, and fave pub/cafe meet-up places/days for the rest).

Categories
Book reviews media Politics Uncategorized

This could well be an article about gardening (but it isn’t)

When life puts a new trap in the path of we humans, my normal response is to walk right into it, realise it’s a trap, ignore all available advice about how to get out of it, then write about the experience.