Can social media ever be a force for good in Welsh politics? – Laura McAllister

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Dystopian or democratic?

Amplifying the voices of the disenfranchised or monetarising comms and reinforcing the power of corporates?

Social media was portrayed as a 21st century way to promote conversation, consensus and community. But, in the current climate, few could dispute that social media creates as many divisions as it builds solidarity.

Its ugly, sinister side has been exposed in all its glory, with nothing particularly ‘social’ about social media these days, it seems. Platforms that were designed to connect have become wedges that wrench us apart.

How then has social media become such a vessel of poison and hate?

The ideal of greater digital interaction promoting a sense of community and connection has been shattered by displays of vitriolic abuse, along with new research that shows that it induces greater loneliness.

In politics, it’s de rigueur to have a social media presence. Those of our politicians who don’t already have one are no doubt racing to develop a Tik Tok and Insta identity before May’s elections. But it’s worth stepping back a little.

Cal Newport is a US computer science academic, a millennial but one who doesn’t use social media. There were five million views of his TED talk on ‘digital minimalism’ where he predicted a public health crisis for young people from excessive social media use. When we see cases of teenage suicides attributed to online abuse, spiralling mental health problems and regular and casual (but horribly brutal) sexism, homophobia and racism, Newport has something here.

In standing up to his racist abusers, Dragons’ rugby star Ashton Hewitt has established a political and campaigning profile as admirable as his performances on the pitch. Little wonder Hewitt’s so determined to call out the racist trolls when, after a derby match versus the Scarlets, he received dreadful abuse from a Twitter account called ‘random black rugby player’ featuring a black doll and offensive images.

It’s no great surprise either that the past decade has seen such exponential growth in the reach and power social media platforms enjoy.

At one level, the opportunities social media should offer modern politics and democracy are self-evident. They can provide (at least superficially) an egalitarian voice to everyone, a chance to speak and publish without financial cost, they should be able to provoke debate and enrich discussion.

Let’s not forget how social media drove the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements.

Or how it was skilfully and collaboratively used to promote the #TogetherStronger motif that was the backdrop to Wales’ wondrous engagement with the world football public in the 2016 Euros.

Or the work of campaigning tennis superstar Naomi Osaka cleverly utilising social media by wearing the names of victims of racial injustice and police brutality on her face masks at the US Open last year.

Then there’s our own Welsh women footballers like Jess Fishlock, Angharad James and Tash Harding who have all spoken up about LGBT rights in a personal, but powerfully political, way. Unlike in my day, any young girl who thinks she is gay has plenty of wonderful role models from whom to choose.

So, as a minority of social media abusers up the ante, I guess the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is – can it be transformed into a force for good, or at least less a force for evil?

Journalist Ian Leslie’s new book Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart And How They Can Bring Us Together talks about ‘productive disagreement’, how we engender discussions and engagement based on challenge and critique, but still generates constructive outcomes.

I completely agree that this is something we have never been more in need of but, when I think about my columns here, it’s always the case that anything I write about the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or even Abolish, receives far less engagement than my musings on independence or on Labour and Plaid. A useful red light to us all that the echo chamber is all about confirmation bias and can create a dangerous over-confidence.

Of course, the real problem is that most social media is driven by the monetisation of public discourse and, importantly, of disagreement. Cleary, there’s more money to be made from angry rows than civil consensus. Plus, social media was born in an era characterised by polarisation and populism.

One can legitimately debate cause and effect here.

For what it’s worth, I suspect social media presents and reflects our collective mindset and popular culture as much as it’s caused it. After all, we started on the path to a more individualised, more brutal and internecine politics much earlier than the 2000s. It seems obvious that the blurring of the boundaries between online existence and real-life risks normalising behaviours easy to exhibit virtually, especially with at least some degree of anonymity.

We are seeing a much more sinister and direct relationship between the virtual and real worlds now, too.

Would we have imagined even five years ago that social media would have directly inspired the attack on the US Capitol in January?

Or that Facebook would admit it had failed to prevent its platform from being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar?

Or give such a platform to conspiracy theorists?

Before social media, you might believe that Elvis was alive but, aside from your immediate friends and family, there weren’t that many routes to spread your story more widely.

A friend of mine, a veteran ex-local council leader, told me that there was no way he’d opt for a career in politics now. He described it as a “cesspit where lies become received truth in a click” and where there’s a live trail of evidence for every comment ever uttered. And this is a tough cookie from the Valleys. How on earth are we going to encourage people who are currently appallingly represented in the corridors of power to come forward?

I’ve had my share of online abuse, but it’s mostly small beer. I’m not sure that I’d want to put my family or myself through the routine abuse that politicians face now.

Another political friend said that, in her day, she’d get plenty of abuse from individuals in the letters pages of the local papers (often published with fake addresses), but there’s a pretty significant difference here. Getting metaphorically smacked over the head with a Glamorgan Gazette is hardly comparable with anonymous rape and death threats online.

But we need some balance too. Threats and personal abuse are inexcusable, but I see no legitimate reason for people in public office to block others who’ve done nothing more than challenge robustly or from a different perspective. That, after all, comes with the territory.

Hands up those of us who feel guilty about the time we spend on social media.

I’m as guilty as the next woman. I recognise the subconscious anxiety around its grip and a sense of imbalance in my relationship with it.

Thinking about it, that’s because social media, and platforms like YouTube especially, are smartly and deliberately designed to suck us in. Ooh, I’ll just drool over that video of a great Maradona freekick and, before you know it, I’ve scrolled through all of Diego’s awesome back catalogue.

This idea of ‘flow’ is particularly relevant in conspiracy theory.

Jay David Bolter wrote in The Atlantic about how this term was used by our own Raymond Williams, “To describe the way American television’s rhythm of programmes and advertising is calculated to keep viewers watching hour after hour. More recently, flow has become a term of art in video-game design. Unlike television, games require interactivity and designers try to keep the player in the ‘flow channel’, where the play is neither too difficult and frustrating nor too easy and boring. Social media combines the flow of television and the flow of video games to keep the user scrolling through post after post. The motivation here is obvious – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram only earn money if you stick around to view more ads.”

Little wonder, then, that digital detoxes are the 2021 equivalent of a weekend spa and facial.

On the cusp of the most important election since the Senedd was established, it’s interesting to consider how social media might affect the outcome.

The risk is that, with online and social media campaigning replacing doorstep activity, we retreat further into those famed echo chambers. The election then becomes a turnout game, with parties focusing on their own segments of voters rather than trying to appeal beyond.

This already seems to be shaping the early activity of the two main opposition parties.

Witness Adam Price’s call for an independence referendum in the next Senedd term, interestingly against the recommendation of the (pretty impressive) Independence Commission he set up. That’s not a criticism per se as this is a pure play to the base, whilst also pitching to the flourishing YesCymru movement which has the potential to be influential in these elections. It keeps independence on the agenda here at a time when it will be front and centre in Scotland, while also appealing to younger voters particularly.

Unlike in US and UK elections, the political machine behind Senedd elections is immature and underdeveloped. Limited robust internal media means the focus on Wales’ democratic process is patchy. That’s a double-edged sword – it presents political opportunists with a virtual opening, while also giving informed campaigners and practitioners a space to play.

I assume that YesCymru’s impressive suite of social media accounts and an influx of some 11,000 new paying members has created a cash war chest. This puts the single-issue movement in a strong position, but the bigger problem is that independence is not enough of a priority for soft Labour voters with whom Plaid has had minor (if nowhere near enough) success in previous elections.

Of course, all of this may well draw the ire of unionist campaigners and abolitionists – many of whom cut their teeth during the Scottish independence referendum and then honed their art further during Brexit. But I sense the simultaneous distraction of the Scottish election campaign should weaken any targeted unionist onslaught.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Conservatives have been focusing Facebook posts on mopping up anti-Mark Drakeford sentiment over his handling of the pandemic. A quick scan of their channels will show calls for faster reopening of the economy, along with a less cautious move out of lockdown, retaining the focus on business, building the M4 relief road and reviving the Welsh Development Agency. Nothing to get excited about there and the levels of engagement with posts are decent, but unspectacular.

Yet the Tories are set to do well in the Senedd elections, basically by default. The collapse of the parties to their right might throw in around 127,000 former UKIP voters who are up for grabs. Depending on the success of vaccine rollout and lockdown relaxation, for the Welsh Tories, the social media messages are likely to feature Boris not Andrew RT.

So, 70-odd days out from a critical Welsh general election, those who live largely through social media would appear to be in the driving seat.

But a note to ourselves – if we believe all that we read in the Twittersphere, if we hear rather than listen, if we read rather than think critically, if we instinctively scorn those with views different to our own, we might yet be surprised by the results from Wales’ first real social media election.



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