Fraser Stewart defends the democratic uses of social media and warns against the damage of social media algorithms that reduce political content across mediums
I GREW up in a relatively deprived area (or rather, a few different deprived areas). Areas where it isn’t really the ‘done thing’ to talk about politics. Areas where it could be reasonably estimated that more of my friends have taken recreational drugs than have turned out to vote.
Political engagement in these kinds of areas – on council estates and schemes the country over – is low for myriad reasons and not just in the UK. This is a common trend, across black neighbourhoods in America to the shanties in Brazil and beyond.
We understand this. The forgotten, the left-behind, the demonised poor and condemned addicts and young people completely dismissed by political parties and institutions because hey, it’s not like they vote anyway. Ignore the small towns and schemes; the working classes don’t win elections anymore.
The forgotten, the left-behind, the demonised poor and condemned addicts and young people completely dismissed by political parties and institutions because hey, it’s not like they vote anyway. Ignore the small towns and schemes; the working classes don’t win elections anymore.
It is a trend which has held true, broadly speaking, for generations. So when the internet began booming in the mid-2000s, there was a glimmer of hope. With the rapid increase in online access came a new means of political communication. Blogs opened up to the masses and newspapers took full advantage of new readership capabilities.
Fast-forward a few years and we received what was arguably the most important forum of an age for political activism: social media. From MyPlace to Tumblr to Facebook to Twitter, modern technology has had implications well beyond convenience alone. Talking politics has never been so easy.
Now don’t get me wrong – I completely understand the trepidation of some to get political online, and the darker downsides of abuse and harassment that can stem therefrom. I have first-hand experience. Trolls and bullies on social media are well-renowned and this has undoubtedly extended into the political realm. But it is easy to forget the vast benefits when these are so often lost in the melee caused by the moronic few.
These negatives aside, social media exists as arguably the greatest aide to political engagement in modern history. While its lasting effects and influence are open to debate, there can be no denying the role played heretofore in campaigns such as Obama’s presidential run in 2008 and again in 2012, Sanders’ in 2016 and, perhaps most infamously, the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.
Of course, lively engagement on social media is not restricted to major elections. Consistently, current affairs have dominated Facebook and Twitter in recent years. The reaction to the Paris attacks, for example, saw a huge show of solidarity from millions the world over; the EU referendum brought with it a host of opinions and discussions. I cherish this. We all should.
Don’t get me wrong – I completely understand the trepidation of some to get political online, and the darker downsides of abuse and harassment that can stem therefrom.
Ok, full disclosure: I have a vested interest in ‘Facebook politics’, one related directly to the beginning of this article. For the last two years or so, I have made a point of making political posts and videos, some of which have done incredibly well. But none of it is really for the ‘likes’, as nice as they can be.
Coming from a fairly forgotten part of the world, I often despaired at the lack of political engagement among my old friend and community groups. But it was rarely down to genuine contempt; usually, disengagement spawned from the lack of effort on behalf of politicians and commentators to make politics understandable, to encourage those who wouldn’t normally engage to do just that.
My own political posts, then, are geared towards starting debate – to try and talk respectfully and plainly about politics, and actively encourage others to do the same. At the risk of sounding like a condescending self-obsessive, I take great pride in this, and in how well the initiative has worked until this point. People I never expected to take an interest are piping up and chiming in to matters of global importance with informed gusto and passion, which is incredible to see.
People I never expected to take an interest are piping up and chiming in to matters of global importance with informed gusto and passion.
It’s not as easy as some might think to post your politics online. Sure, we have our ready engaged who will force opinions down your throat no matter what medium or forum you’ve been unfortunate enough to stumble into, but for most of us – especially in these excluded areas – it is a very difficult thing to get over the initial hurdle. It makes you vulnerable, to criticism from social groups and the internet at large. It opens you up to attack and challenge and ridicule.
Confidence in abilities and understanding is a big part of that. When a discussion is initiated on social media, it can thus be genuinely inspiring and more than a little affirming. The more people are talking about it that normally wouldn’t, the more confident and educated people become, the more efficiently and effectively our democracy can ultimately work.
So when I heard that both Facebook and YouTube were changing their algorithms and monetisation processes to deprioritise (and in some cases actively censor) political content, I was dismayed.
I get it, OK. I understand that YouTube relies on advertising revenue and as such they have to make concessions in some cases; likewise, I get that Facebook is trying to tailor content to suit individuals specifically. But their editorial input is damaging our democracy and we should absolutely be outraged by this.
It is doubly unfair to assume that political posts are unpopular en masse and should thus be effectively culled.
There are other ways to appease your advertisers, as a plethora of YouTubers have outlined over the last few weeks. It is not YouTube which primarily concerns me. Most of my friends aren’t even YouTube members. But they all have a Facebook account.
My issue is this. When Facebook decides that people should have timeline content tailored pretty harshly to their own ‘tastes’ based on things they’ve liked or engaged with before (particularly when personal-political content is already deprioritised from the start) it automatically excludes posts that they may not have engaged with in the past for reasons unbeknown to the algorithm.
While the intention is almost understandable, it is unfair to assume what someone may or may not want to see. It is doubly unfair to assume that political posts are unpopular en masse and should thus be effectively culled. Maybe all of the Facebook community really doesn’t want to see political statuses. Or maybe some were toying with the idea of getting involved but are now being increasingly deprived of the opportunity.
This is seriously bad news, and not just for like-chasers or commentators. The effects of this algorithmic bias means less opportunity for those who wouldn’t usually engage to do so. It means less opportunity for those speaking up for the first time to have their own posts engaged with, which in itself is massively discouraging and means an ultimate reversal of many of the leaps and bounds taken on social media towards widespread political participation.
We are left now with timelines full of cats, food and the odd comedian repeating tired stereotypes. Our democracy suffers and citizens likewise – none more than those who were on the cusp of bringing themselves out of the political dystopia, into the light of online discourse.
Picture courtesy of Sasha Manuel
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