An argument for critical engagement with social media within Socialist Alliance

An argument for critical engagement with social media within Socialist Alliance

During the July National Council meeting, a report touching on media engagement and youth recruiting spurred several comrades to discuss the Alliance's use of social media, on both an organisational level and as used by individual members. I was an enthusiastic contributor to this discussion, as I believe our collective approach to the question will have political implications for organising within the Alliance, for our relationship to supporters external to the Alliance, and on the broader level of modern Australian society.

As this is meant to be an introductory assessment of the situation, growing out of a five-minute National Council discussion contribution, I have not set out to write the definitive text on social media here; I would like to see this grow into a larger body of discussion, and I welcome criticism and analysis of this article in order to develop a rich ongoing correspondence here on Alliance Voices.

I would like to preface my comments by saying that I am not a Luddite, a primitivist, or in any way anti-technology. On the contrary, I have a Computer Science background and am currently continuing my studies at the postgraduate level. It is precisely because of my knowledge, experience and exposure that I feel this contribution to Alliance Voices is worth writing. I have been inspired by the socialist history of cybernetic systems and information technology, from the use of the telegraph system in the Russian Revolution, through to the Chilean CyberSyn/Synco prototype project under Allende [1], and continuing through the modern Free Software movement [2] and the work of socialist cybernetic theorists such as Paul Cockshott [3], Allin Cottrell, and many others.

However, the socialist technological vision is a long way from the modern reality of technology under capitalism, and I present my critique as an analysis of the concrete nature of these technologies as they stand today, both in their technological aspects and their influences upon the character of social relationships between comrades, supporters, the general public, and the mass movements.

While many of my criticisms are broadly applicable to any number of social networking platforms, this article will contain specific discussions of Facebook, as it is the most popular social networking technology within both the Alliance's membership base and the broader Australian public. It also presents a unique set of weaknesses and vulnerabilities that make it worse than many alternatives.

It is also important to understand that this is not a moralist criticism of any individual's use of social media technology. This is neither a critique based upon spurious purity, nor a call for ethical consumption or personal morality, and the right of any comrade or supporter to continue to use Facebook, Twitter, or any other service is not being questioned in any way.

Many comrades are 'at home' on these platforms and use them to both co-ordinate their personal lives and to promote political material in a way which builds political consciousness in a mass forum. While I certainly hope that this article allows all comrades to take a more informed approach towards their social media use, it would still satisfy the aim of this article if not a single member changed their social media habits after reading it.

In fact, this article is written from the direct opposite motive; I aim to assert that, based upon what we know of the social media landscape as it stands today, no comrade should be required to use a specific social media platform as part of their political work. As an habitual non-user of Facebook, I have been drawn into using Facebook for political purposes several times, and my experiences have provided me with strong experiential confirmation that Facebook, in addition to being a security risk and having a detrimental effect upon interpersonal and comradely relationships, is also a poor organising tool which is often used out of convenience rather than serious political motives.

There is still a strong case for the use of Facebook (or any other specific technology, such as Skype, Discord, Slack, GoToMeeting, etc.) in particular circumstances, such as contributions to an existing mass movement which organises or holds leadership discussions via Facebook (or any other platform). Lenin's old advice to "work wherever the masses are to be found"[4] remains as relevant today as when he wrote it; to take a stance against the political use of Facebook would indeed be a symptom of an "infantile disorder", more suited to lifestylist purity politics than socialist pragmatism.

The concrete purpose of this submission is, in part, to assess the suitability of Facebook for internal Alliance organising, to argue against what I believe is a prevailing attitude that it is a suitable or 'default' organising tool for internal discussion, and to outline some possible alternatives.

This article will discuss three areas of concern - privacy and security, detrimental social effects from social media use, and Facebook's weakness as an organising tool. In my discussion of alternatives, I will briefly discuss strengths and weaknesses of the platforms mentioned, and their suitability for non-technical users.

Privacy and Security

Discussion of the privacy and security implications of technology, including smart phones and social media, has proliferated throughout the media in recent years, including fantastic coverage in Green Left Weekly. Instead of recapping this complex history, I will direct all comrades to the GLW sections referenced below[5]; if you only have time to read one article, I would suggest the article "Surveillance Capitalism -- Facebook just one example of profiteering off our data"[6]. The revelations of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden (and others, made public often through Julian Assange's Wikileaks project) are world-historical in nature and should not be underestimated in their technological, social and political scope; however, I intend to focus on the implications for Alliance organising on a more concrete level.

It is true that we currently face a very low level of state oppression directed against activists in Australia; to claim that we are facing a Red Scare scenario, with ASIO hiding under every bed and tapping every phone, would be rank exaggeration. With the exception of some few activists (mostly in the First Nations and environmental movements), we are not facing a situation where mass surveillance is used to co-ordinate mass oppression. Indeed, the main concern about these data-gathering strategies is precisely this low-key approach, which prioritises large-scale 'passive' information gathering as part of the basic infrastructure of our lives, rather than using intrusive and obvious tactics such as phone-tapping, physical surveillance or harassment; this has a disarming and de-mobilising effect upon potential resistance, as the absence of apparent contact with the surveillance apparatus works on an "out of sight, out of mind" basis.

Nonetheless, the data gathering goes on, constantly, on a mass scale. If a court order (or clandestine, classified, or undocumented request) is able to retrieve vast quantities of metadata, the development of cloak-and-dagger Red Scare style activist surveillance is rendered unnecessary. What is more, with Facebook and many other services retaining data indefinitely in large archives, we face a situation where your Facebook activity as an activist may suddenly become relevant if state oppression tactics were to resurface in the coming decades.

Use of Facebook for political purposes provides any observer, including criminal organisations or private (employer) security who may gain access to your records (either those internally held by Facebook or specific extracts provided to information services -- often poorly secured and physically held by contracted commercial providers), with a full map of your social relationships and political affiliations, which will stick around, preserved in backups and snapshots, for as long as any data aggregator decides to retain your data. This is like those awful YouTube videos where molten metal is poured into an ants' nest to map the nest structure - it provides anyone who has access to this data to a complete profile of everyone you are in contact with.

Even without gaining access to the details of particular posts, chats, or images, any organisation (including police or state intelligence) can use this metadata, supplied by Facebook and other social media providers with a minimum of fuss, to determine who you know and how you interact with them. Without reading the content of a single message, anyone with this data could use the patterns of 'chatter' to determine the likely location and time of a meeting or rally, who might have organised or directed it, and the current situation "on the ground".

On another level, there is the well-documented use of "information warfare" and "information operations" by well-funded state and non-state actors to influence public opinion on social media websites [7]. Many different political groups have been discovered using fake 'bot' accounts to flood a discussion forum or chat room and make it appear as if there is a consensus on a topic; this shaping of public opinion has been much discussed throughout the recent US election cycle. Further, the posting of deliberately inflammatory or divisive opinions (in bad faith) by these actors, in order to incite a feeling of conflict and division (where none may have organically existed in a particular community) has been identified as a specific tactic.

Continuing to use Facebook as part of our normal lives, without remaining vigilant that both we as individuals and the Alliance's support base as a whole are being deliberately influenced by these methods, would be wilful ignorance.

Owing to the novelty of these attacks, I contend that there are many comrades (including myself) who have not yet fully developed the kind of environmental awareness required to assess when these tactics are being used (indeed, owing to the secrecy behind the tactics and the lack of transparency in the administration of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc., it is almost impossible to prove in any specific case); comrades who would instantly dismiss a Murdoch paper or a political party "shit sheet" are still developing the savvy required to operate in this environment.

This is not an argument against the use of Facebook or other sites by appropriately-informed comrades (indeed, how else would we combat this effect?); it is an argument against considering Facebook to be a "default" option, as an undistorted reflection of mass opinion which "everyone uses", or a platform which should be uncritically accepted as another neutral utility (like water or electricity) which we use as part of the daily background of our lives.

Social Relationships

The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living... The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." Guy Debord, "Society of the Spectacle", 1967[8]

Who among you, reading this article, has never seen a small disagreement (political or otherwise) between friendly acquaintances on Facebook flare up into a vicious all-in dogpile of accusations and counter-accusations?

While the Alliance maintains a robust code of conduct [9] and comradely behaviour, it is easy to find instances, on any given day, of comrades and supporters engaging in online conduct which would be obviously out-of-order if conducted during an Alliance meeting or in any face-to-face setting. The anonymity, distance, and alienation fostered by the online setting encourages participants to see each other not as people, comrades, and fellows, but as disembodied conflicting opinions intruding into hard-earned leisure time.

Even genuine, passionate political disagreements which would otherwise be resolved through debate at National Councils, Conferences, or here on Alliance Voices, are warped by the Facebook environment into petty spats which will never reach resolution or produce materials of historical record (such as pamphlets, conference resolutions, or Alliance Voices contributions) which would capture the debate for further analysis within the socialist movement.

Arguments about contentious subjects (cultural appropriation, sexism, racism, trade unions, feminism, ecology, sex work, veganism, socialism, or any leftish topic worth naming) which would benefit from comradely discussion and dialectical deliberation are made much more trivial, incomprehensible and insincere by a social media infrastructure which thrives on division instead of unity, distraction instead of focus, individual opinion rather than collective deliberation, and clickbait-driven profit rather than flourishing personal relationships.

Observe the general silence here on Alliance Voices in the past two years; a flick through the archive will reveal that the amount of discussion material being contributed has seriously declined even in the last 5 years. I contend that many discussions which would once have made excellent submissions to a journal of socialist critique have actually been choked off, buried a long way down an acrimonious chain of snarky Facebook replies.

This centralisation of discussion on a corporate platform has other deleterious effects upon socialist organising. The reliance upon Facebook as an organising tool shifts the focus from the disciplined collective organising which was once the mainstay of every popular movement. Socialists managed to organise for centuries before Facebook came along, but now many comrades will claim it is an indisputable organising tool.

Reliance upon Facebook organising takes time away from traditional socialist skills, such as face-to-face meetings and simple phone calls (and phone-banking, and the now-folkloric phone-trees) to build connections with the supporter base, and the development of long-form, considered argument on forums such as Alliance Voices.

It is certainly not a case of "either-or", and both can be conducted within the same movement or by the same organiser; however, any one organiser only has so many hours in a week, and I think it would be flatly incorrect to claim that comrades are able to effectively manage the full spectrum of organising tools without any difficulty in prioritisation.

The use of personal contact to build ongoing relationships is especially important to a group such as Socialist Alliance, which tends to have a core of active members and a much larger base of less active members and supporters.

In my experiences of conducting short phone-calls to inform branch members of upcoming events, activities, and rallies, even a five minute phone-call can have a powerful cohering effect, making members feel like they are a part of an active movement and strongly motivating them to take up more active roles in the political and social life of the Alliance. This inclusive effect is not gained through other contact mechanisms such as email calendars or bulk text messaging.

Using re-tweets, Facebook likes, or event attendance clicks to measure political uptake can be very misleading. Compared to the personal agreement fostered by asking in person or over the phone, the impersonal nature of a "Going" or "Interested" on a Facebook event means that the numbers are always wildly over-reported and unpredictable.

This focus on abstract numbers prioritises representations over concrete reality; there is not even a reliable conversion rate between pre-event registrations and event attendance, often falling anywhere between 10 to 50%. This tends to foster either a naive optimism or a pessimistic cynicism, and distracts from a more sober estimate of social forces based upon real political engagement.

Finally, I would ask comrades to consider what might happen in the event of a targetted deletion of activist profiles by a service such as Facebook, or in a more comprehensive full-internet shutdown in a situation of severe state repression (such shutdowns have been seen recently in Iran and Turkey, and can be used on localised scales by US police forces using tools such as "Stingray" devices [10]). The general dystrophy and decay of these face-to-face organising links, tactics and ingrained habits would be immediately apparent in such a situation.

Unsuitability as an Organising Tool

In addition to the concerns raised above regarding privacy, security, and the detrimental influence upon personal relationships and organising skills, I claim that Facebook is an ineffective organising tool on a purely technical basis.

It is exclusive (requiring a Facebook account, with associated problems mentioned above), privately-owned (run non-transparently by Facebook), insecure (without any meaningful message encryption system), non-anonymous (requiring use of full, personal names at all times), closed-source (denying users the ability to make improvements to the underlying code), and non-erasable (denying users the ability to remove their own data from Facebook's servers, and limiting the user's ability to delete old posts or messages for security purposes).

Owing to the scale of Facebook use, it would be ignorant to criticise Facebook abstractly, and it should certainly remain available as an option to any organiser. However, it makes a very poor organising tool, and I would urge comrades to consider a wide range of other communication and organising tools before instinctively settling on the use of Facebook as a 'default' tool, especially among Alliance branches and committees or within campaign groups strongly influenced by Alliance organisers.

Facebook event pages and cross-posting groups remain useful outreach tools - denouncing them would be like writing-off postering or "how-to-vote" cards. However, these should be adopted as part of the strategy, not as a whole in-place alternative.

Considering Facebook as a monolithic system - "we must use Facebook for our organising communication because we have a Facebook event page for the rally" - is as short-sighted and self-limiting as writing all your meeting minutes and on the back of a how-to-vote card simply because you are running an election campaign and they happen to be available.

Alternatives

There are many alternatives available to Facebook organising. These alternatives fall into a number of groups, which I will discuss together. While some of these alternatives do require some technical knowledge, I do not insist on the use of these more complex technologies, and generally prefer the less complicated technologies myself.

The most obvious alternative is the regular old email list: familiar to activists of all ages, easy to set up, publically available and transparent. These can be organised by anyone with a list of email addresses, or can be set up through services such as Google or Yahoo Groups.

While email groups are not secure, they are extremely simple to set up and manage and suitable for any group not hiding out from Tsarist secret police (encrypted email also exists for the paranoid, should it become needed). They do not require an account with a particular provider, requiring only an email address of the user's choosing.

For more secure communication, I would recommend use of the Signal messenger. While Signal has some conceptual flaws in the centralised server infrastructure, the messages themselves are secure between users and no exploits or weak-spots have yet been demonstrated in the messaging system.

Signal is extremely easy to set up (my Nana uses it!) and supports persistent group discussions. It also allows simple passing of links, images, and documents as another convenient feature. There are a range of other alternatives on the same general model - WhatsApp, Telegram, XMPP/OTR, ring.cx - which are more-or-less secure (usually less) and more-or-less easy to setup and use (usually more).

There also exists a range of "chat channel" software services which require users to sign up to a central server. The oldest and simplest is Internet Relay Chat (IRC), but a range of other channel-based services exist, such as riot.im, Discord and Slack, which some comrades might be familiar with. All of these have their pros and cons (again, focussed on security and user-friendliness) for large group discussions, but they do provide the required features and sometimes the ability to self-administer the services to ensure security and transparency of the software.

Conclusion

This article has sought to discuss the political viability of social media as an organising tool for the Alliance, focussing on Facebook and its flaws as a social media platform and as an organising tool.

While I certainly don't expect anyone to change their personal Facebook habits as a result of this article, I hope that comrades reading all the way down here are empowered to do their own research and re-assess the political basis for using Facebook and other social media platforms.

Most critically, I would like comrades to consider using an alternative communication system - preferably plain old email lists - next time they set up a campaign group, and to consider migrating existing Facebook-based organising groups to other, more technically and politically suitable platforms. I am happy to discuss any of the ideas in this article further, and to provide technical support or advice to any comrade looking to move off Facebook and on to another platform.

References:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wii/Project_Cybersyn

[2] https://www.fsf.org/

[3] https://paulcockshott.wordpress.com/

[4] Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/

[5] GLW: https://www.greenleft.org.au/tags/edward-snowden, https://www.greenleft.org.au/tags/privacy, https://www.greenleft.org.au/tags/nsa

[6] Surveillance Capitalism: https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/surveillance-capitalism-facebook-just-one-example-profiteering-our-data

[7] Bots: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-22/russia-linked-bots-are-trying-to-make-the-world-an-angrier-place/9473242

[8] Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm - quotations from Chapter 1 paragraphs 2 and 4.

[9] https://socialist-alliance.org/documents/code-conduct

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stingray_phone_tracker#Denial_of_service

I am also indebted to crimethinc.org for their critiques of technology and online organising, notably "Deserting the Digital Utopia" (https://crimethinc.com/2013/10/04/feature-deserting-the-digital-utopia) and "The Internet as New Enclosure" (https://crimethinc.com/2013/06/10/the-internet-as-new-enclosure). While I do not agree with every point in these articles, together they form a formative and valuable contribution to the general discussion of modern networking technology as it relates to radical left politics.