That’s one hell of an “echo chamber”: why I disagree with Owen Jones on social media

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I have the greatest of respect for Owen Jones. Quite honestly, I think he’s made a huge contribution to turning the tide in favour of the sort of ideas that are now being debated all of the country as a consequence of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party leadership: public ownership of the railways; a £10 living wage; putting an end to tax loopholes; stopping the demonization of welfare recipients and investing in decent public services. While these ideas have been around forever, it is through Owen’s columns, speeches and incessant activity that many of them had a foothold already. Not only that, I consider Owen a mate. I’ve known him for nearly 10 years now, as a genuine, thinking activist of the left. Very recently, though, I’m not nodding along as much I have in the past. It’s like buses. You spend five years agreeing with just about everything Owen Jones has said or written, and then you find yourself disagreeing with him three times in a matter of months.

The first time was over Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature. As someone who was involved in the nomination campaign from day one as the social media co-ordinator (I was convinced enough to part with a £5 free bet at 100-1 and that’s all the proof I need!), Owen was one of the voices who poured cold water on the idea that any anti-austerity candidate might be conjured up from the Parliamentary Labour Party, never mind Jeremy Corbyn. Fair enough, Owen was hardly the only one and has recently held his hands up as being a fairly late convert to Corbynmania. Secondly, I disagree with Owen’s idea that we need to “love bomb” UKIP supporters. I’m with Jeremy’s instincts on this one. We will not win over Kippers by bending to their agenda, but by challenging xenophobia – directly, bravely and honestly. I absolutely agree with the idea that it’s about how we do this: sending them to the ideological Gulag isn’t the way – but we have to show that there is a principled, strong and positive alternative to the politics of fear and hate, and that involves engagement and challenge, not love bombing. Thirdly –and it is this which I really want to deal with in this piece – I think Owen is absolutely wrong in his assessment of social media as an “echo chamber” of the left.

I’m slightly confused by Owen’s downbeat assessment of social media as a campaigning instrument. His own social media presence has been a tremendous catalyst for a number of left projects on the ground – as well as his own career as a media commentator. Both have been hugely important in countering Tory ideology. As someone who has been centrally involved in two very successful social media operations – Red Labour and the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign, it’s my opinion that the left would be nowhere without social media. Again, it’s about the “how” rather than the “what”: it’s about how we use social media. Do we use it to put out information, essentially as a website does, or do we use it to genuinely engage with people? Do we use it as a publicity tool or an organising one? If it’s the former, social media has obvious limitations. And that’s the point. Owen talks as if we’ve reached the summit and now it is time to “get real”, when in fact we’ve only scratched the surface. As he says:

“Let’s be honest, though: if social media were as politically invaluable as the left would like, Labour would now be in office with a majority of 150.”

But actually, the Tories won the social media battle in the last election, particularly on Facebook, where their reach was considerably larger than Labour’s. Ok, they might have paid for it, but it’s not true to say that the left has dominated the medium. To be honest, though, I’m less worried about those kind of contests, which are fundamentally about advertising rather than democratic, political engagement – and that’s where I think Owen is really missing the point.

Globally, there are 968 million daily active users of Facebook alone, with around 31 million of them in the UK. Twitter has around 10 million daily users. It is no longer, as it once was, a preserve for the young, or the metropolitan, or the middle class. Social media has been likened to a very large pub, with everyone talking at once – tens of thousands of conversations at once. That’s not a bad analogy. The key to making sense of it, of how to create some movement out of all those disparate voices, is about how it’s organised. That’s always been the issue for the left and our biggest failing. So it’s not about online vs offline, it’s not about packed out meeting halls vs Facebook events, it’s about whether we can rise to the challenge of genuinely harnessing the many weapons at our disposal in a democratic and meaningful way.

Owen says: “We can’t just want retweets and packed halls, after all, but to change the world”, but change starts with getting people in the room first, doesn’t it? The real world packed halls are impressive enough – anything up to 3,000 people came out in all weathers, in all parts of the country and at short notice. But even they are dwarved by the numbers of social media. Our regular weekly ‘reach’ (those who saw the page) during the campaign hovered between 1.5 million and 2 million for three months. Since Corbyn has been elected, those numbers have reached up to 6 million. Those who, on a weekly basis, engaged in the page actively averaged around 200,000, but again rocketed as the election result was announced, to 700,000. On Twitter, there were 250,000 mentions of the campaign during the summer, with reach hovering again at the 2 million mark. These are phenomenal figures – and yet still it’s not the real point. The real power of social media compared to the mainstream media is as an organising tool. To build, we need to value and develop activism on the ground – and the traditional, liberal media just does not have that relationship with the grassroots. It’s always been its function to be somewhat distant, making judgements on these movements, rather than being immersed in them.

So what of the “echo chamber”? Owen says:

“The left, and supporters of Corbyn in particular, are often accused of retreating into a echo chamber. That is an obvious danger for any individual or movement that operates almost exclusively via social media: tweet something sticking it to the Tories, start watching the retweets piling up, and it can seem as though society is cheering you on.”

Except, that 6 million people is a pretty big echo chamber – and even that 700,000 who are actively engaging is considerably bigger than even wildly optimistic assessments of the left previous to the campaign. Also, it isn’t what we have been doing. Anyone who has been paying attention to the official Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader operation will know that almost everything we have put out in over three months of campaigning has been a provocation to debate – outward facing, trying to get people to share and to engage the uninitiated in argument. Because of our experience of other social media campaigns, including Red Labour, we’ve realised that trotting out a line, whether sticking it to the Blues or cheering on the Reds, is unlikely to get much traction. It absolutely has to be interactive: asking people for their views, their comments and ideally their action. It has been about building people’s confidence by showing them that they are not alone. It has been about showing them examples of other activity around the country, and encouraging them to take action locally.

This has spread far beyond the ‘official’ output. What we have seen is a massive flowering of people’s creativity, of people showing solidarity for each other – and reinforcing each other’s determination and strength in very trying circumstances. In turn, by the simple act of sharing, those examples of togetherness and the ideas that go with them have spread to a much wider audience, even to those UKIP voters who Owen talks of. That’s how you build Facebook and Twitter as an organising tool. The principle is the same as in the outside world. You can have as many star-studded, platform-heavy meetings as you want, but if you don’t do the groundwork of listening, engaging and nurturing the activists on the ground, you’ll still be doing the same thing in five, ten years and wondering why nothing solid has been built. So there’s no magic to it.

There’s a top down way to do social media (releasing news to your followers) and a grassroots way to do social media (using it is a forum for an activist-led movement). Used openly and with strategic sense, social media isn’t an echo chamber at all, but the most enormous consultation exercise the Labour Party and the movement around it has ever seen. It’s instant feedback on our ideas, our strategies and the way we do politics. Social media is about creating an alternative source of news and information which cuts out the vested interests of the established media, but it’s also, potentially, so much more than this. When Jeremy talked about the “enormous democratic exercise”, he wasn’t just talking about the act of voting in the leadership ballot, but the whole piece. Are we perfect? Of course not, but does anyone believe that we would have had a selectorate of 550,000 without the influence of social media? Far from being the end of the story, this is just the beginning, because social media offers us the most enormous opportunity to engage people we’d never have had a chance with even 5 years ago – people who have never voted before, those who walked away or have rejected the party for a variety of reasons as well as those who have voted differently, right across the spectrum. Even Kippers. Can’t happen? It already has.

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