In the light of my recent post about social media literacy I’ve been looking for a nice example to illustrate how it might work in practice, and Keir Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey has provided one. It’s my contention that she was removed for using Twitter to express an opinion, and that using Twitter to do so, regardless of said opinion, is not in the interests of the Labour party.
Sure, there’s all the factional stuff, and the anti-semitism stuff, and the personal stuff, and some of that is important, but I’d like to look at the role of Twitter in all this.
As I said before, corporate social media platforms are engineered to weaponise messages, amplifying their reach by focussing their meaning into a myriad of different personalised triggers. This means that the same message can be read as a righteous call to action and a terrible slur against a minority and everything in-between and otherwise as it travels through the filter-bubbles.
You can find your own example of this, I’m sure. It’s most obvious when the replies to a message are all over the place with people arguing at cross-purposes assuming bad faith an incapable of listening, because the platform has stripped away any hope of common purpose.
This is not a bug and it cannot be fixed with better moderation or policing. It is how these platforms are designed. And until their owners fix them, or we find better platforms, we need to approach them with this in mind.
The problem with Long-Bailey’s tweet was that, once she posted it, she had no control over it. That she probably didn’t read the interview properly and hadn’t noticed that Maxine Peake had mistakenly fallen for an extrapolation of “US police getting training from the Israeli military” (which happens - they get training from all manner of countries, and this militarisation of civil policing is a big problem) to “George Floyd was killed by a Jewish knee-hold technique” (which is bollocks) is irrelevant. That criticism of Israel is not the same as anti-semitism matters not a jot. None of the arguments in her defence matter because they do not address her main failing.
She should have know better than to tweet in the first place.
Politics, for better or worse, is about controlling the message in order to get elected. This is something the right are very good at (look at how the Republicans fell in behind Trump once he was in power, and watch how they will desert him when the time comes) while the left are terrible at it.
In order to get back into power, Starmer needs to create a consensus around a broad policy platform. This will not be easy in the best of times, but it will be impossible if members of his cabinet remain active users of Twitter where their messages will be twisted out of context and weaponised into controversy.
I obviously don’t know if this is an explanation for his decision. I suspect I’m wrong because I’m operating in my own bubble, but I do hope that, in hindsight, this creates a social media policy for Labour politicians.
So, how should politicians use Twitter and other social media platforms?
I remember when Tom Watson (remember him) was the first UK politician to embrace the social internet with his blog and then as an early Twitter user. It was seen as positive thing, a way of connecting with people outside of the Westminster bubble. I remember having an exchange with him in the late 2000s and marvelling at the novelty of it. The playing field was being levelled and, as we moved from Blairism to Cameronism, it felt revolutionary.
Whether we were horribly wrong or whether the changes introduced to generate income through attention ruined everything is moot. The situation we have now is untenable. Discourse on matters social and political is impossible in this arena. It needs to be shut down and taken elsewhere.
Starmer probably can’t ban his MPs from using corporate social media, but he can control its usage through actions like this. The only thing Long Bailey could reasonably have done to prevent this situation was to not put her opinions in a tweet in the first place. I hope she, and everyone else, realises this.