Thoughts on social media

It’s been a while since this blog saw a proper update; never fear, however, we’ve been keeping ourselves busy and the next few days should see a few updates of one sort or another.

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29th April 2011 saw observers from around the UK and around the world tune in to watch perhaps the most heavily overhyped moment of two young people snogging this side of Big Brother. Street parties kicked off here and there, though the festive atmosphere was dampened somewhat by the knowledge that, for all the media spectacle, 79% of people in the UK didn’t actually care in the slightest (http://www.republic.org.uk/What%20we%20want/In%20the%20news/?command=fe_show_press_release&press_release_id=343&date__date__year&date__date__month&date__date__day). With Britain living under a hard-right government, skyrocketing unemployment, threats of industrial action and now a royal farce to distract from it all, casual observers could be mistaken for wondering if they had experienced some sort of Ashes to Ashes-style time travel, waking up in a replica of the 80s with just the odd difference here and there to let us know something wasn’t quite right.

Amid all the spectacle, however, there was another story. In London, a series of social centres were raided by police, with similar events reported in Brighton and elsewhere, combined with large numbers of “pre-emptive arrests” (http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/guy-aitchison/political-policing-in-britain-ahead-of-big-day). And, in the digital realm, over fifty groups – including York Anarchists – were deleted from Facebook without warning (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/29/facebook-activist-pages-purged).

Gene Hunt wouldn’t stand for this shit.

Much has been written since then on the topic of Facebook and other forms of social media, their advantages and disadvantages and the issues they raise for campaigners. Now that York Anarchists are alive and well once more, this seems as good a time as any to look into some of these issues and see how we can learn from them.

The advantages of using social media are fairly obvious. For starters, it’s where people are. Statistics for 2011 (http://www.clickymedia.co.uk/2011/03/uk-facebook-statistics-for-march-2011/) show that around half of the UK population uses Facebook, figures which seem likely to grow. Given how pervasive the use of these sites has become, it is unsurprising that activists would come to rely on them as a means of organising and distributing information quickly. When, for example, the student protests were taking place in York, much of the preparation and publicity was carried out online, providing an easy way to keep people informed and active without the cost or inconvenience of more traditional methods such as leafletting and flyposting.

Among the most visible of the social movements thrown up as a reaction to the financial crisis has been UK Uncut, whose large, headline-reaching tactics – chiefly focused pickets and occupations of shops implicated in tax avoidance – have received attention from public, politicians and police alike. These protests have been largely decentralised, with groups up and down the country calling actions on their own and as part of UK-wide days of action, and have overwhelmingly been publicised through sites such as Twitter and Facebook. This has allowed actions to be called at relatively short notice, while the participative nature of the sites in question has allowed anyone with the initiative to call for actions with relative freedom.

The disadvantages of this approach are, unfortunately, equally obvious. When the York Anarchists page was removed from Facebook, we lost not only one of our chief means of communication, but our list of several hundred contacts, contacts we are still trying to recover. For groups such as UK Uncut, for whom Facebook has served not only as a means of communicating but as a key organising tool, the impact was even more damaging.

While damaging, these incidents were not particularly surprising; Facebook has a history of co-operating with governmental and police requests, while its commitments to both privacy and free expression have been questionable at best (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Facebook). These concerns are not unique to Facebook, of course, but part of a wider problem in which our means of communication are in the hands of private businesses – businesses which, by their nature, are accountable to the needs of the market and the state rather than their users.

This, then, is the dillema. On the one hand, social media is a valuable tool, an easy way to reach people where they are as oppose to the often insular nature of specifically “activist” media and sites. On the other, they are out of our control and have little in the way of accountability, problems which, as seen during the Royal Wedding fiasco, can lead to very real complications for campaign groups.

Some have advocated creating alternative, decentralised forms of social media, such as Diaspora (https://joindiaspora.com/) and Crabgrass (http://crabgrass.riseuplabs.org/), with the explicit aim of avoiding the centralisation and privacy concerns which Facebook brings with it. While on the one hand these projects are appealing, they raise issues of their own. People do not use Facebook because they believe it will respect their privacy. They use Facebook because Facebook is what people use – our friends, family, neighbours, coworkers and loved ones. In short, it is “normal”. When attempting to distribute information widely, there are clear benefits doing so in a way which is widely accessible, rather than appealing only to other activists and those who have made a conscious decision to reject the mainstream.

This is not to write such projects off, of course. The existence of open-source alternatives allows for coders and activists to contribute to the development of the sites we use, adding features and tightening up privacy in ways that the centralised nature of Facebook does not allow. Similarly, by decentralising the way these sites are run, we can avoid the problems posed by having a single point of contact that can be so easily compromised.

One option may be to divide our activity – to use existing social media as a public face and means of distributing information and announcing events rapidly, while avoiding relying on it for internal communication and organising work.

There is, of course, the wider issue of reliance on internet communications in general. Many will be familiar with the phenomenon of “clicktivism” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/12/clicktivism-ruining-leftist-activism), the use of online petitions and similar activites as political activity in themselves. While the internet is a valuable communications tool, the struggles in which we find ourselves take place away from the computer – in our workplaces and communities, hospitals, streets and universities. The internet in general, and social media in particular, can act as a valuable means of encouraging our “real world” activity. But they cannot substitute for it.

21st May saw a Defend Our NHS march taking place in York. York Anarchists called for a radical bloc as part of it – and, yes, it was called via Facebook. For all its failings, it does have its uses.

Love & rage,

A York Anarchist

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About York Anarchists

A group of anarchist radicals living and working in the city of York.
This entry was posted in anarchism, anti-cuts movement, protests, social media. Bookmark the permalink.

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