Neil O’Brien: Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists

11 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

“Defoe says that there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether Popery was a man or a horse.” William Hazlitt, 1830

When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building last week, many people in Britain probably thought that it was just the latest manifestation of a special sort of craziness that has gripped America. That sort of thing surely couldn’t happen here. Or could it?

The same evening, to far less fanfare, the Metropolitan Police arrested 21 people outside Parliament. On new year’s day, doctors leaving St Thomas’s hospital were greeted by a large crowd of protestors chanting “Covid is a hoax”.

These things are connected. They show that the same forces at work in the US are in some ways, already at work here.

Let me wind back a bit. Obviously, I mainly blame Trump for what happened in Washington. He did everything he could to incite the riot, in a brazen attempt to reverse his election defeat.

But other people made this possible too. The ragtag army of wannabe revolutionaries smashing up the seat of Americas democracy were radicalised by a whole ecosystem of shock jocks, social media cranks and conspiracy theories.

They’ve ended up living in a world of alternative facts, in which Trump is the sole bulwark against diabolical global conspiracies, and the President is the victim of an election “stolen” by a shadowy “elite”. In a world of such illusions, almost anything can be justified.
None of this is new. Trump was in a sense following the playbook of Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 whipped up fears of shadowy Catholic conspiracies, sparking vicious riots that left hundreds dead or wounded.

New forms of media often fuel revolutions. The printing press led to the reformation and wars of religion. The Cahiers to the French Revolution. The “Big Character Posters” spread the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

New technology has again changed things. First, Twitter, Whatsapp and online news have simply made political organisation much easier. The ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and ‘Arab spring’ were early demonstrations of their viral power.

But now the second shoe is dropping. What we are seeing now is the power of these technologies to create communities of radicalisation. Islamism is the most obvious example. A constituent of mine who lives in a pretty, sleepy village (with a lovely tearoom) was recently charged with seven terrorism offences. More and more, attacks come from those who have radicalised themselves online.

But Islamists are just one community of radicalisation. I was chatting to an apparently normal man this summer, when conversation turned to the coronavirus. He told me, with a matter-of-fact air, that it was all a hoax, set up by the New World Order who were planning a Great Reset, in which Big Business would take over and we would all be microchipped. I’ve had several similarly alarming conversations.

When people got their news from mainstream TV and radio news with strong legal obligations to be neutral, people were exposed to both sides of most stories. As has often been pointed out, people can much more readily be wound into a frenzy if they get their information from Whatsapp groups, people they follow on twitter and from agenda-driven ‘news’ sites.

But the idea of “filter bubbles” doesn’t really do justice to what new media is enabling. People aren’t just passively consuming news they agree with. People are building communities. People they ‘know’ from chat and comment threads. Making likeminded friends on twitter.
Indeed, conspiracy theories like QAnon represent a kind of enjoyable ‘game’: crack the code to understand the shadowy conspiracy!

The US has gone further down the road of polarisation than other places. People increasingly live with in neighbourhoods with likeminded people. The national conversation has been curdling for decades into extreme left and extreme right bubbles, with disastrous effects on politics.

The same technologies are having similar effects here. If we had faced the current pandemic in, say, 1992, how would you have got news about it? Perhaps there would have been a “Covid-92” page on Ceefax.

But if you’d wanted to spread the idea that vaccines are poisons, dreamed up by Bill Gates, you had nowhere to go but Speakers Corner really. So the man I met this summer, who so readily absorbed all this nonsense, would simply have been unlikely to encounter such ideas. These days, someone like Toby Young can set up a website to give people a dose of covid-sceptic propaganda every day. Crank “scientists” can rapidly gain a huge following on twitter.

Social media has changed how we live. In my first job in politics, working for Business for Sterling in 2000, I used to fax a press summary each morning to about 20 people. At the time, there was a well-written Eurosceptic newsletter called Eurofacts, which was photocopied and posted around to about 1,000 people once a month.

Until the next month, that was your hit of single-currency-scepticism. You had to go off and think about something else. Sure, some newpapers campaigned hard on both sides of the euro question. But reading the papers, even daily, just couldn’t absorb your attention in the way social media does.

Looking back, those were the mild-ale days of political communication. These days, people can become hooked on the crack cocaine of issue-driven social media.

Take the SNP cybernats. They can read a daily newspaper promoting Scottish independence, then go on a website or twitter all day to chat with other cybernat friends and wind each other up.Did you hear the one about the “secret oilfields” the UK government is mysteriously covering up, to do down Scotland? When people form such intense groupthink bubbles, they can come to believe almost anything.

We can’t uninvent social media, which also has many benefits. But we do need to adapt to it. In the US, fringe ideas like the QAnon conspiracy theory built up online. But their spread has been accelerated by the willingness of broadcasters and politicians to flirt with them to gain clicks and exploit their energy.

If we are going to avoid our national conversation going the same toilet, we need strong mainstream media. But we also need those in positions of power in the media to behave responsibly.

For example, one of the best selling papers in the UK recently ran a piece promoting the views of an “NHS worker” who claimed hospitals were “empty” and Covid was a “hoax”. If it had taken a quick look at her Facebook page, they’d have seen her celebrating the burning down a Jewish-owned bank, as part of a “great awakening”.

We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting. Parts of Britain’s media have spent the Coronavirus pandemic doing everything they can to downplay the seriousness of it and set bogus stories running by publishing the claims of cranks. Professional contrarians have fed people misleading nonsense to get clicks: carrying on their business-as-usual, even in a life-or-death situation. As hospitals hit crisis point, they should reflect on their actions.

The attempted putsch in Washington didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been decades coming. It happened not just because of one man, but because people in positions of power made short-termist decisions to feed the beast, and play along. Don’t think it couldn’t happen here.

Debbie Flint: Winning the social media war in Devon

17 Dec

Debbie Flint is Conservative Women’s Chair and Deputy Chair, Fundraising & Membership, for Torridge and West Devon.

The left-wing Twitter bubble may have got it very wrong at the last election, but we still face an uphill struggle against them online, as Conservatives fight to cut through on social media. No point responding directly to try to put right their ceaseless mantra of uncaring Conservatives. No point reacting to name-calling. Instead, we must be cleverer.

In our history, I don’t think we’ve ever faced such vitriol due to relentless Tory-bashing. Many of us don’t even confess our political leanings amongst our peers. Especially if you work in certain industries where it’s totally out of favour to praise Boris Johnson. So it’s time for a newer approach. By and large, doorstep campaigning is out. So in Devon we are starting to play social media on our own terms.

In Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox’s constituency, we have been identifying heart-warming human interest stories to report on in our Association posts, but leading with the human angle, in the style of an anecdote told by a neighbour or a friend. That way, more likes, more shares, more “traction.” Our councillors’ name recognition should be greater in the May 2021 county council elections as a result. .

We also exploit the many behind-the-scenes tools Facebook offers, thereby maximising these new contacts. For instance, using the one-click ‘invite’ button to anyone who likes a post to invite them to like the page; following up a comment with a reply if needed, and being sure to ‘like’ all positive comments; crucially using other tools which deter too much trolling. And training our candidates and current councillors to use all these tools and to pepper their pages with more touchy-feely pictures and stories, getting their personality across and avoiding a timeline jammed full of dry statistics and graphics.

Linda Hellyer leads the way. County councillor for Bideford East, she spearheads our “close the digital divide – donate a laptop” scheme. She has already been pictured on posts with grateful recipients – deserving local students who couldn’t otherwise learn online and don’t mind being featured. (Please note that yet more students have received theirs away from cameras – it’s not just done for the PR.) We’re collecting laptops aged up to five-years-old to be refurbished – voluntarily – by Holsworthy Computers, any replacement small parts being covered by our fundraising. Laptops are delivered personally by our councillors once they identify a keen student, or their parent. Linda said several people came up to her in the street, saying they didn’t even realise she was a councillor. The word-of-mouth follow-on about these real-life case stories is priceless, and more valuable and far-reaching within a community than any online criticism. Her laptops post gained a reach of 2,255 and 120 engagements – all positive – far exceeding her more standard posts.

It got further coverage when Radio Devon and local papers got in touch, taking her exposure even further.  They were then perfectly placed to cover Linda’s next initiative – a compassionate treatment of the challenge faced by the blind during COVID. How? She put on a blindfold and had three of the locals guide her around the town so she experienced exactly what they face on a daily basis. She pounded their uneven pavements, and encountered their unexpected obstacles – sometimes literally – made worse by Covid restrictions – guide dogs don’t do social distancing. The payoff-ending to this social media tale is that she took massive action, got ‘tactile pavement slabs’ installed eg next to the quay, with more tweaks planned. Original, human, #conservativesCaringintheCommunity.

Holsworthy district councillor David Jones‘s run of the mill tale of a Tory installing a bin, was told from the angle of the local resident in her 80s who explained in enthusiastic detail how it impacted her life and daily journeys. As a side benefit, she immediately joined the Conservative Party – she was so impressed with David and his hard work.

Chris Edmonds, County councillor for Tamarside in West Devon, helped provide a post on our Facebook page about the local businesses he’s helped, with form filling for COVID grants, but from the human angle and with more examples and fewer generalisations. We boosted the post but targeted his local area only, with the hope that it caught voters’ eyes more than any colourful graphic about policy could do for him.

The ‘over the backyard fence’ approach we use in my day job, in television sales, translates well for getting cut-through amongst Facebookers who are only too used to three second attention grabbers. And we are aiming to use much more video, because the algorithms of Facebook automatically give them more exposure.

In the December 2019 election campaign, I helped provide a constant video presence for our MP – the first election where social media has been as important as leaflets. Geoffrey became adept at being filmed – short pieces to camera with action, interesting local backgrounds, and always making a pithy point.  Some posts did well and got boosted – ads and the ‘boost post’ button can help us reach new constituents. They’d rarely sit down and read a detailed A5 leaflet but respond well as they scroll through their daily updates on Facebook, to the human side of their MP, and sometimes his dog.

For the brave, doing live Facebook posts could garner even more attention.

We will be able to provide a bit of training for this as well. Debo Sellis, County councillor for Tavistock, a self-confessed technophobe, is game, having embraced the need to do this with gusto. “It’s just got to be done,” she says, “even though I would have run a mile from all this a couple of years ago.” Her posts are gaining good reactions and her consistency is key.

Specific help from an outside paid expert can also be fundamental – Alfie Carlisle was used by our chairman, John Gray, when he stood in Exeter during the election. Alfie also guides us through the maze of how to place ads and surveys on Facebook – and we’re all learning something new every day. Like the fact that Facebook ads must now display who paid for them, making careful identity clearance essential. Confusing for some, but Alfie has a map.

We post regularly, not just sharing the important updates from CCHQ, but many local stories like these and even a ‘Friday funny.’

It’s not natural territory for many Tories – this social media lions’ den. So last month we hosted a Zoom ‘how-to’ on Conquering Facebook and Winning Elections. Organiser, Julian Ellacott, leads us volunteers as Chair of the South West region and is planning a second session in the New Year. We recorded the training for those who missed it, and can provide a PDF of the bullet points. By spring, most of our councillors will hopefully have their own pages and be following the above recommendations…

Creating solid back-up is the flip side, for when the anti-Tory gang pile in, with newly formed support groups on Whats App, or ‘closed’ (private) groups on Facebook, will not only share links to each other’s pages and increase a councillor’s following. They will also help alert each other to swiftly post positive comments to provide balance, should somebody get trolled. Julian’s so-called ‘Jedi’ groups will come into their own by Spring.

Shaun Bailey’s team in London have a ‘Shaun’s sharers’ What’s App group too, and more. We’ll have some ‘momentum’ of our own.

Hopefully our leaflets will follow suit and be more chatty too – Julian is keen on more white space and more pictures – for the three second brigade.

Other recommendations for priming connections on social media include this from a very forward thinking, Sarah Codling, a councillor in Weston, who presented the Zoom session with me. She took the initiative early on and set up a local community group for Weston that now has 2,000 members. Getting involved in a non-political way on your local groups helps people know who you are. We get more likes with this approach – our equivalent of puppies and kittens – showing with undeniable examples, our compassionate conservatism.

In a year where there seems to have been a never-ending blitz against the very ethos of being a Conservative, and the lack of communication at the top has been in the spotlight, it’s up to us to spread the word. And don’t get me started on Instagram – our future is doomed if we can’t get through to the youngsters, and that may be the next port of call. No idea about Tik Tok – maybe I’ll ask Jacob Rees-Mogg about that.

Please contact me on Fundraising@torridgeandwestdevonconservatives.org or fundraising@debbieflint.com and check out the many CCHQ PDFs on the various social media topics.

Kate Dommett and Sam Power: We must act now to protect our elections from foreign interference

25 Sep

Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.

Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).

Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.

Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.

While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.

Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.

While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.

In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.

Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.

Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.

The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.

“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.

We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.

At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.

Linden Kemkaran: Our pop-up Summer Academy has been a roaring success. Let’s hope others can follow.

30 Jul

Linden Kemkaran is a writer, broadcaster and was the Conservative candidate for Bradford East in 2019.

In just three short weeks, a group of parents and teachers from Kent has achieved what most schools struggled to do in four months of lockdown: create from scratch, a free, daily, online, live, fully interactive tuition service for children aged six to 16, accessible via laptop, phone or tablet.

It’s not designed to get children ahead, its purpose is simply to plug the gaps in the core subjects and go over work that our children would have been doing, had they been at school.

Our aim is to use the next five weeks to get them ready and confident for September. It’s called the pop-up Invicta Summer Academy and we’ve tried our darndest to reach those children who need it the most. On our first day, Monday of this week, we educated 1199 children and on day two, 1250 joined our live lessons.

We did it without any help from government, local or national, and we built everything from scratch including our website and social media presence.

During the 21-day planning phase we’ve been meeting regularly via WhatsApp and Zoom while simultaneously working our day jobs either full or part-time, and juggling childcare; some of the team have used up precious annual leave. The level of hard graft and commitment from the founders and team members has been nothing short of extraordinary.

We raised funds, recruited a team of volunteers that included Zoom and tech experts, project managers, barristers, teachers, journalists and community champions, and set about organising timetables, and writing press releases.

We began with a simple idea and now, at the start of the first week of live lessons, we are totally over-subscribed – our scheduled 20,000 spaces went within days of our booking page going live – and are turning away desperate parents on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Wanting to educate hearts as well as minds, we are also running a weekly Wednesday “aim high” live showcase session featuring stars such as Lizzy Yarnold, the double Olympic champion, and, Mark Sargeant, the Michelin-starred chef, to encourage kids to ask questions and never give up on their dreams.

Even after extending our lesson capacity to 25,000, 600 parents are currently on our Zoom waiting list. The fact that a very ordinary, if hardworking, bunch of local people has pulled this off from a standing start, begs the question, why wasn’t this level of interactivity and learning happening anyway?

It all started in mid-June with a simple conversation over a socially-distanced cuppa in my friend Anna Firth’s garden. She told me how every weekday morning during lockdown, her privately-educated son had been up, dressed and at his desk at 8.20am for registration, followed by Zoom assembly, and a stringent timetable of live, interactive lessons in all his key subjects.

My jaw dropped as she described how his PE teachers even held competitive sports sessions against other schools using Zoom. Anna had naturally assumed, until she observed my gaping mouth, that all other children had been doing much the same.

I then saw on Facebook an end-of-term post from a teacher friend of mine, about how her fee-paying school had successfully completed its final Zoom lesson of a full timetable including end of term exams, and a parents’ evening, and how teachers and students alike were now anticipating a well-earned rest over the holidays.

All this was worlds apart from the lockdown experience of my grammar school daughter, and many of her state-educated peers, almost all of whom had been without a rigorous daily school structure and had had little or no live interaction with teaching staff.

I realised that since schools shut in March, I had been watching my daughter slowly lose all motivation and it was clear that she was finding it harder and harder to just get up every morning due to the complete lack of interactivity with her school and such low expectations that had been set.

A Year nine student, she would typically receive an email on a Monday morning, containing a list of tasks to be done, some with no deadlines, and others to be emailed back but which were frustratingly, hardly ever marked.

For the first two-and-a-half-months of lockdown there were no live lessons at all and when some were introduced, it was a one-way street in terms of visual interaction due to a bizarre “safeguarding” policy that I still fail to understand; on screen the child may see the teacher, but the teacher is not permitted to see the child, and the children can’t see each other.

I know that child safeguarding is really, really important and to that end we have put in place strict guidelines in our pop-up academy to pre-empt any issues. However, I still cannot get my head around the fact that from the age of four, my daughter has been physically present at a school, five days a week, 40 weeks a year, in the sole care of teachers.

These teachers, of which there have been many over the years, have been competently and cheerfully in loco parentis while I have sometimes been geographically miles, if not continents away from my daughter due to work commitments.

I simply don’t get how it is suddenly a safeguarding issue for the same trusted teachers to interact with her via a webcam for the duration of a virtual school lesson – with her parents physically in the next door room.

I poured all my frustration out to Anna Firth who shared it via a Zoom chat, with a formidable primary school teacher called Stephen James. Between the two of them they said, “we can do something about this”, and so they did and our little team was duly formed.

Our pop-up summer academy is now being rolled out in four other locations: Oxford, London, Lancashire and Surrey and I’ve just taken a call from a friend in Hampshire who wants to set up there.

The feedback so far from re-engaged pupils has been that “the lessons are fun” and parents are genuinely scratching their heads and asking why on earth their own schools, with a team of paid teachers and a ready-made register of pupils, haven’t been doing this all along.

I personally suspect that politics has played a much bigger part in this sorry episode than it should have done and there have been a number of powerful hands working the levers of the various teaching unions, attempting to disrupt Downing Street’s plans as much as possible. If state-schooled children lost out during the process, it doesn’t seem to have bothered them in the slightest.

Education is the surest way to lift children out of poverty and it seems grossly unfair that those who need the most help, have received the least during the Covid crisis. Our attempt in Kent to put this right is a start, and we hope that others will follow our lead and try to close the gap where they live too.

Shockingly, the Department of Education warns that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to the pandemic and a poll by YouGov found that 51 per cent of teachers had pupils who had “dropped out of education altogether” during lockdown.

What’s the betting that these are the kids for whom a decent education is their one shot at a chance of a better life?

Facebook, Liz Truss and future challenges with the internet giants

3 Jul

In recent weeks, Facebook has been up against huge pressure to control hate speech and groups on its site. Much of this increased after President Donald Trump posted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in response to protests in Minneapolis, on both Twitter and Facebook. The aftermath exemplified, among many things, that the two dominant social media sites had taken very different strategies to tackling inflammatory content.

Twitter went for the cautious approach. It added a warning label for the post to say that it had glorified violence, and hid the content unless it was clicked on. Facebook, on the other hand, kept Trump’s post up, on the basis that it was not an incitement of violence, but an announcement of state use of force.

Facebook’s “hands-off” approach to Trump only changed when a number of powerful companies pulled out of advertising with the site, such as Coca-Cola, Verizon and Ford, in a campaign co-ordinated by Stop Hate for Profit. Some have called these organisations opportunistic – Covid-19 has eaten into advertising budgets, and surely any company will jump on the chance to look socially righteous – but it’s still an expensive wobble that Facebook no doubt wants to avoid.

As a result, the social media has said that it will add a label to tell people that content may violate its policies; it’s a watered down version of what Twitter is offering. Even so, Zuckerberg has been fairly resilient in dealing with Stop Hate for Profit, which has set out a list of content it wants gone from Facebook and other sites. Zuckerberg said that he would not change Facebook’s policies; that he thinks advertisers will be back “soon enough”, and that he remains committed to democracy and free speech.

In spite of this, one strange area Facebook has increasingly delved into is political affairs, especially in anticipation of the upcoming US election. Some of this is to right the wrongs of 2016, in which there was foreign interference, with Russia attempting to “undermine the voting power of left-leaning African-American citizens, by spreading misinformation about the electoral process”, among other activitiesFacebook has since spent “billions of dollars in technology” and hired “tens of thousands of people” to fix this. (Incidentally, the UK is still waiting for its report on the alleged Russian interference in politics to understand the extent of it here.)

But more strikingly, Facebook has ventured into interventionist territory, with the new aim to “help 4 million people register to vote”. In doing this, Zuckerberg is taking the organisation much further away from its initial design. Many users, like myself (aged 17 when it first came out), will think of it predominantly as a tool for making friends online and posting photographs; a type of social peacocking, in many ways.

Zuckerberg, however, clearly has more profound visions. He says he wants to boost “authoritative information” for voting that he expects “160 million people in the US to see”. The goal sounds altruistic on the face of it, but it also poses big questions, like, who gets to categories “authoritative”? And should social media giants be involved in democracy at all?

Increasingly there’s been accusations from conservatives that in delving into the political realm, social media sites tend to show biases in favour of liberals, most notably Trump, who said “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH” after it fact-checked one of his Tweets. 

One writer suggests that out of “22 prominent, politically active individuals who are known to have been suspended since 2005 and who expressed a preference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 21 supported Donald Trump”. In UnHerd, the author and commentator Douglas Murray goes further, revealing his own suspicions that Twitter is penalising right-leaning writers, such as hiding “likes” (a way of showing support for posts) from their posts.

Some say that there is no evidence of social media biases, with Kevin Roose, a tech journalist, noting yesterday that the best performing accounts on Facebook are all conservative. A tech expert tells me that the “exact opposite viewpoint (of social media bias) is shared in various countries, where the view is that the anti-capitalist left is censored by American tech giants”.

None of this has reassured Trump, however, who is proposing a bill to make social media giants take legal liability for material that their users post. But this could crush free speech, to a certain extent, making companies more likely to remove content to protect against litigation.

Even if there is not algorithmic censorship, many people were concerned last week after Google UK launched into Liz Truss, the Conservative MP, on social media. On June 18 it posted a petition trying to lobby her on the Gender Recognition Act.

This event should have rung serious alarm bells; a tech giant coming for a Conservative politician is seriously bad news, although – tellingly – there was a dearth of news stories about it. One suspects if Google UK had attacked a Remainer politician on refusing to leave the EU, it would have received the proportion response. This was, after all, perhaps the world’s biggest holder of personal information interfering in UK democracy.

One concern that has been pointed out repeatedly about Silicon Valley, and its companies, is that the demographic make-up of its tech talent could influence the ways in which content is censored. Even Zuckerberg has called it “an extremely left-leaning place”, and many will wonder how this affects their role in deciding the terms of “offence” on social media sites, and otherwise. 

In the UK, perhaps the most significant issue is that we are just so removed from these authors of our (online) reality, even if they have domestic offices. We know little about the algorithms they use – and it suits tech companies this way, limiting others’ abilities to get into the sector.

Here brings us to the biggest question: how should UK politicians deal with Facebook and other tech giants? Much of the focus on these companies has been on their involvement in elections, but they also have an impact on Joe Bloggs’ income, too, as one report by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) elucidates on.

It points out that Google has “more than a 90 per cent share of £7.3 billion search advertising market in UK, while Facebook has over 50% of the £5.5 billion display advertising market”. The report suggests that by dominating the market, these organisations control the default prices for advertising, which are arguably higher than they need to be – and in turn effect the consumer, as advertisers keep their product costs high.

CMA sets out numerous ways in which the Government can start to break up these giants and encourage competition. It is quite alarming in the ways in which it highlights tech giants’ control over many things – from prices, to regulation. And all of this has to change.

Ultimately, along with the current 5G issues the Government is dwelling on, they are going to increasingly need the knowledge, and foresight, to intercept some of these tech powers before they become so dominant as to make their powers irreversible.

Already the Government has found that Apple stifled the approach it wanted to take to contact tracing, and this is just a taste of what’s to come – as the tech giants, sometimes working in conjunction, block out competition. There is a mammoth amount of information to take on board, changing all the time. Along with Brexit and Coronavirus, Tories will have their work cut out.

Luke Evans: What social media says about the Government and the virus. And what my constituents actually said when I asked them.

24 Jun

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Like any other Member of Parliament Fridays are, for me – at least when the House is sitting – constituency day.

Most MPs will tell you it’s the best part of the job. Arguably, it is the bit that counts most. You get to hear about the lives of people in your hometown, the issues that matter to them and, hopefully, you are able to make a difference both in the casework that you do on their behalf and raising important causes in parliament.

Last Friday was my first constituency day since lockdown started – the first time I have been able to go out and speak with ‘real’ people face to face. It’s an experience which never fails to surprise.

I’ve written before about the difficulties facing Twycross Zoo in my constituency and, since it had opened its gates to the public for the first time last Monday, it seemed somehow fitting that my first visit should be to the same place that was one of my last before the Coronavirus crisis started.

What struck me? It was amazing to hear of staff returning, see families enjoying a day out, and witness first hand how many of the primates are enjoying human interaction once more (a serious point, the keepers were surprised that some seemed “depressed” by the lack of interaction – does that sound familiar too? Perhaps I digress).

My afternoon was allocated to a tour of recently reopened shops in Hinckley, the largest town in my constituency. During the week, I had raised the issue of supporting Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) as a potential vehicle to help increase footfall and reduce shop vacancies on the high street, to which I was pleased to hear the Government agree.

It seemed a perfect opportunity, then, to join the Hinckley BID, which arranges visits to shops and local businesses, to see how they are faring.

I thought that they would be inclined to paint a fair picture, especially when it transpired I would be being joined by a local Liberal Democrat borough councillor. The reason for this? I could avoid my own team hand-picking businesses which by their very nature might have been more supportive of the government: in other words, I wanted to hear how things on the ground really were rather than how I might hope them to be.

I’ve long subscribed to the concept that ‘the map is not the territory’ – there are always filters, some conscious and others less so, that affect our perceptions of reality.

It’s very easy to look at social media and see the distortion and anti-Government rage, and easily misinterpret that as the territory. I’ll be honest: I was more than a little worried about what I would hear when I spoke with independent retailers, whose entire livelihoods had been placed at real risk as a result of virus that is – at the end of the day – no one’s fault.

Of course, as I should know only too well by now, social media isn’t the real world, and the comments I met with were in no way representative of what Twitter or Facebook tell me that it is like.

I heard shopkeepers telling me of brisk trade; again and again independent retailers talked about cautious optimism for the sector – “shop local” seems to be resonating clearly.

And above all? A real gratitude that a Government, which by no means has been perfect, has supported them through the darkest of times; a Government responding to the greatest threat of our generation had given them the hope that they can return. The Chancellor’s promise to do whatever it takes had stuck with them, and had really meant something.

At a time when hope could have very easily been lost, that’s a really powerful thing to have done and won’t be forgotten any time soon.

Members of the public stopped me on the high street to talk about support they had and wanted to give to the local economy, a true sense of coming together to make the best of an international crisis.

I was taken aback. Of course, I fully appreciate that those comments are just a differently interpreted map of the same territory.

The only way we can make that map more accurate, of course, is by adding data and it seems to me that, in the bubble, we’ve become fixated on only adding the datasets that we can see on our mobile phones, and not talking to people.

As MPs we need to make sure that we place equally as much value on a conversation with our constituents as we do on 280 characters. Sometimes we all lose sight of that fact.