Challenges for liberalism 2: How should liberalism respond to the prevalence of social media?

Editor’s Note: These posts are based on a speech given by the author at an event organised by York University Liberal Democrats.

I’m not sure if social media is something we’ve invented or, like refined sugar, something we discovered by accident that superficially hits pleasure centres in the body to deliver a highly addictive, but ultimately unhealthy experience.

Liberals generally want to see drugs treated as a public health issue, rather than a criminal law issue, and I think there is possibly a lot of mileage in seeing social media in the same way.

However, I think there’s a bigger problem specifically for us, and that relates to the Paradox of Tolerance.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with that, but just in case the paradox of tolerance is that if you tolerate everything, including intolerance specifically aimed at ending tolerance, you destroy that environment of tolerance you were inhabiting in the first place.

This is why we don’t tolerate nazis.

And social media is an accidental Christmas gift to those guys.

Facebook has huge problems with being used by powerful people, in complete anonymity, to subvert democracy.

It is trying to address that, and some of the stuff it’s been doing recently shows some promise. Twitter though, oh dear…

Because of the complacency and social ineptitude of the people who run it, Twitter has evolved into a highly refined tool to spread lies and hate. It’s not even a case of putting lies and the truth on an equal footing. Twitter actively promotes and rewards liars and bigots, while punishing groups, such as those of us invested in liberal democracy, who are invested in telling the truth.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I help curate the LGBT+ Lib Dems Twitter account. In the last local elections we did a load of tweets every 10 minutes or so promoting our LGBT+ candidates around the country.

I happen to know, because the Facebook group where they were organising it was leaked, that a bunch of a few dozen transphobes were submitting multiple abuse reports for every single tweet we made. Some of them were pretending to be 15 different people.

Eventually the Twitter algorithm, because it has to be an algorithm because Silicon Valley, right? Eventually it decides that there must be something to this, because how could so many reports be submitted over nothing?

Eventually it suspended our account. We eventually got it unsuspended, but I’m sure it’s getting hidden from a lot of timelines because Twitter’s algorithms have decided that it must be problematic.

We can’t counter this. There’s no human on the other end we can actually talk to and explain, “this is what’s going on here, please help protect us from this”. We can’t use the same techniques to defend ourselves because while we present a single big target, as an organised body of a political party, the other side uses troll farms, with dozens of new accounts daily.

And Twitter’s response to all of this is more algorithms, but the other guys see that as a challenge. It’s a computer game to them. We are constrained by playing by the rules of liberal democracy, and of our party. We are accountable for what we say. These guys have no accountability and regard lying, cheating and gaming the system as a means to an end. We can’t compete with that – it’s like trying to swat a swarm of mosquitos with a cricket bat.

Social media exemplifies the paradox of tolerance. Naively it’s a level playing field promoting freedom of speech for all. In reality it’s a toxic sewer that effortlessly turns our instincts for tolerance and freedom against us, and uses liberal democracy’s own strengths to poison it from within.

The first challenge for liberals is to recognise the scope and extent of this threat. The second is working out what the hell we do about it

* Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist from Cambridge, an Exec member of LGBT+ Lib Dems and a former Councillor in Cambridge

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4 Comments

  • James Moughan 2nd Nov '18 - 12:49pm

    So the problem for the LGBT Lib Dem account was abuse of tools designed for censorship? Perhaps the solution here is… less censorship?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Nov '18 - 1:10pm

    A really fine article, based on experience and grounded in liberal and sensible values and attitudes.

    I came later to the party of social media, regular, guest appearances on Facebook, no twitter, yet, as the description by Sarah for me seems accurate as one who reads the account thread of people like.

    My view is that we must roll up the sleeves and engage, but never lay bare and expose oneself to the mob.

    If Madame Defarge and the French revolution was now, the terror would have been all the quicker.

  • Clearly any tool can be used by humans badly because humans have our bad side. But the ONLY thing that increases liberalism and democracy is greater freedom of speech. Intolerance and authoritarianism grows when only one side is allowed to put its viewpoint. And normally they will say that expressions against orthodoxy are immoral, unpatriotic, treasonable or blasphemous. Gay kisses on soaps were condemned as immoral in the 80s. We legalised homosexuality but LGBT people were told to “keep quiet”. Clearly the original article shows that twitter and other social media is a vital organising tool for LGBT and other groups.

    That social media and the internet increases debate, democracy, news, information and views and that is amazing good force for liberalism and democracy. No longer do we have to take it from the Government or from newspaper barons etc.

  • Sarah Brown is spot on when she refers to a lack of accountability. Some of the worst manifestations of social media are not worth engaging with. In the run-up to my re-election in May 2018 (well, six months!) I was subjected to scurrilous personal attacks on Facebook. We took a conscious decision not to respond and in our situation it was the right decision. In the end the perpetrators were dealt with in the place where it mattered – the ballot box.

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