Review: Net political impact

To Save Everything, Click Here • By Evgeny Morozov •

Technology and the means of communication have been transformed significantly over the last few decades. But how has this affected society at large? This is the fundamental question behind Evgeny Morozov’s new book. One theme taken up is the idea that these technological developments have a particular social and political agenda inherent to them. But, as Morozov explains, the way these technologies are developed and utilised is driven by pre-existing social conditions.

Click Here, Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, discusses how new technologies, and accompanying ideologies, have affected our daily lives, and have the potential to do so much more as technologies advance. It covers a huge range of impacted areas, from crime prevention to cooking. Some of these follow on from Morozov’s previous book, The Net Delusion, reviewed in Socialism Today No.149 (June 2011). However, for socialists, perhaps some of the most immediate issues that Click Here deals with are in the first half of the book, which discusses how politics has been influenced by new technologies.

Morozov cites many examples of new technology CEOs and their assorted cheerleaders attacking government for being inefficient, undemocratic and a bar on progress, especially when contrasted to the potential change that new technologies offer. Mark Zuckerburg, Facebook CEO, said in 2008: “We are at the point now with the internet, with a lot of these applications, where communication should be efficient enough [so] that… people should be able to have a voice… without having a large organisation with millions of people that has been organised and raised millions of dollars in order to fight for a specific cause”.

Morozov extrapolates, “because people can now organise without organisations – be they parties or trade unions – why bother with these slow and ineffective institutions at all?” But in attacking government and politicians, these tech bosses and their commentators find themselves on popular ground. There is huge anger at politicians, and historically low levels of engagement in elections, political parties, etc. Many people are looking for alternatives to the corrupt incompetents that infest parliaments and senates, and ‘tech geeks’ are offering up the idea of new technologies as such an alternative.

Part of the reason for new technology companies to promote this agenda is to encourage political change to underpin their newfound socio-economic position, and the position and prestige of their companies. The tech geeks are part of a new, rising section of the ruling class, who have been produced by and thrive off the free-market, globalised capitalism of recent years (see: The New Capitalist Elite, Socialism Today No.170, July-August 2013). The freedom that Google and Facebook (estimated values $380bn and $150bn, Telegraph, 30 January 2014) seek is to avoid paying taxes, to collect huge amounts of personal data, and to maximise profits, fundamentally different to the freedom that the vast majority seek.

At the same time, they also reflect a genuine frustration at the underutilisation of new technologies. The huge opportunities that are presented are far from realised. Even minor improvements – Morozov lists mobile phone apps that discover where potholes are and notify authorities, or chips in dustbin lids that detect when the bin needs emptying – are far from widespread.

In Chile, under Salvador Allende’s left-wing government in the early 1970s, a system was being developed to link centres of production and centres of distribution with new means of communication. This system, Cybersyn, was designed to hugely improve communication and coordination between the nationalised sectors of the economy. However, it was unfinished when the US-backed Pinochet coup took place in 1973, and abandoned. While many companies now utilise ‘just in time’ production and delivery techniques, no system since designed has matched the ambition of Cybersyn. Significant civic improvements, which would lead to savings in the long-term, are unlikely to be realised in the era of austerity.

Organising online

This mass anger at corrupt, ineffective hierarchies, has both fed into and fed off the ideas pushed by the internet apostles. Twitter was launched in July 2006, Facebook became open to everyone over 13 with an email address in September 2006. The development of social media coincided with the first rumblings of the economic crisis, and its use and mass uptake has developed in the context of a growing radicalisation.

The impact of these two events were felt in the US with Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, which used social media to amplify its message, and to supplement its appeal to layers who had been disengaged from the political process. Obama’s campaign was hugely successful, mobilising many to rallies and into voting booths. It was able to achieve such results because of the resources of the Democratic Party, but also the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change’, and hatred of the outgoing president, George W Bush. This new avenue for political campaigning attracted a lot of attention in the traditional media, helping to promote Facebook and Twitter as agents of change.

Many other campaigns have utilised social media to promote their message. Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign succeeded in raising the prominence of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) warlord Joseph Kony. This campaign achieved a high degree of visibility after Oprah Winfrey, TV presenter and media mogul, tweeted her support. Once it had reached a certain level of support online, the traditional media picked up on the story, feeding Kony2012 further.

There is a real link between newspapers, TV stations, etc, and the potential for social media prominence. This also means that the prejudices and priorities of these media outlets impact back on social networks. One outcome of the Kony2012 campaign was that Obama’s government deployed 100 special forces soldiers to support the US-friendly Ugandan regime. This campaign mobilised widespread hopes for peace and, specifically, for an end to LRA atrocities, but was used by Invisible Children and the Democratic Party establishment to increase US imperialism’s reach. Kony2012 also had a significant advertising budget, $100,000 (total campaign expenditure $3.4m), beyond the reach of many campaigns.

Democracy monopoly

The way that the vast majority of people use websites, however, is far from an open free-for-all. The advent of social media, sometimes dubbed web 2.0, has had the impact of corralling online traffic towards a shrinking number of websites. Alexa traffic rank (January 2014) puts as the most popular website in the world, Facebook as second, YouTube as third. Of Alexa’s top ten, four are search engines, and two are social networking websites. Other websites receive a large amount of their traffic via these online giants. The way that these websites assess other websites has a significant impact on how people interact online. Facebook, Google, Blogspot and WordPress (the two major blog-hosting websites) make up a major component of the websites that campaigners would use. These websites, and how they rate other websites, has an important influence over the rest of the internet.

Conversely, if these websites were to be shut down, how activists in the west organise online campaigning would be curtailed dramatically. In November 2013, Facebook changed how it prioritises articles; hits on campaigning website Upworthy dropped by 46% in two months (Business Insider, 10 February 2014). Others in the Alexa top ten are Chinese-based search engines and social networks, already subject to heavy state interference.

Google will now also prioritise your search results based on what it knows about you. This ‘personalisation’ also occurs on more sophisticated social media websites such as Facebook, which prioritises posts similar to those you have interacted with before, and vice versa deprioritises others. Twitter’s method of working out ‘trending topics’ is similarly convoluted; not only is the volume of tweets containing a certain hashtag taken into account, but also the change in the volume, the previous highs and lows, etc. This is thought to be a significant factor (Twitter does not make public its algorithms) in why #OWS, one of the hashtags used by Occupy Wall Street, never trended on Twitter and so did not receive the boost in prominence within that social network that comes with ‘trending’.

There is a huge poverty of outlook in how these complex algorithms measure importance; based purely on words and quantitative data, rather than the meaning behind the words. Failing to trend on Twitter did not stop the US Occupy movement revealing the huge anger in American society, and setting the stage for future movements.

Coded debate

Social media CEOs are fond of talking about their software mirroring society. But what a mirror reflects depends on where it is hung, the evenness of the surface, and the point of view of the beholder. Facebook, by far the biggest and most integrated social networking website, brings closer billions of people. The Arab spring supplied many examples of the power to mobilise via social media. Any campaign or political party can receive a boon from developing a presence on Facebook. But does this mean that it is necessary for political organisations and campaigns to overturn their internal structures?

Facebook derives most of its income from advertising. Advertisers choose to promote their product on Facebook, as anywhere else, because of the large number of people that are on the website. The driving force behind the programming that Facebook relies on, therefore, is to maintain and improve its market position, ie to keep users logged into it for as long as possible and to make them visit Facebook frequently. Facebook has inbuilt priorities in terms of what it makes prominent; it does not prioritise everything equally. For example, photographs, including memes (images overlaid with text), are more likely to be prioritised by Facebook – they also generally do not lead to you leaving the website.

Facebook also analyses your interactions with friends within the network, and websites that you visit via links to other websites shared on Facebook. The more you interact with that friend or website, the more prominent it will become. The more time you spend within Facebook, and the greater number of interactions you garner, the more prominent you become among your Facebook friends. Those who devote more time to the network are rewarded by Facebook with increased prominence.

However, these calculations are not necessarily related to the content, whether people are announcing that they are entering into a relationship, or having a very public falling out. The New York Times details the case of, which managed to increase its visibility on Google search results and social media on the basis of people linking to the website in order to complain about it (A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web, 26 November 2010).

Conversations that draw in a number of people are highlighted, drawing in more people. This amplifies the importance of the discussion, regardless of the content. Timing is another a factor in Facebook’s calculations. The volume and speed of comments and interactions are also taken into account.

Facilitating misinterpretation

Political discussion takes place on Facebook because people spend time on there; it is not designed to facilitate political discussion. In fact, many of the factors listed above can act to undermine productive discussion. There is no facility to distinguish between fame and infamy, and online debate can quickly become the realm of the provocative and the provoked.

Within a discussion or an interaction, every user and every comment is put on a par. But, on a complex question, it takes time and effort to respond in a thought-out manner, especially if you want to ask others opinions outside of the conversation, or check facts, before adding your thoughts. If there is pressure to respond quickly, if a discussion is fast moving, then a comment can be initial impressions rather than a more thorough-going addition. It is then entirely possible for others to misinterpret what you intended to say, and to increase the pressure to provide a more thought-out reply in less time.

In bringing together people with many different interests, looking for many different things, in many different frames of minds, Facebook cuts out much of the essential background information that informs how people relate to each other. Individuals have far greater potential control over how they present themselves and, as Morozov relates, tend to highlight aspects of themselves, and shade other aspects. This can lead to many misunderstandings that can have wider consequences. Things that are written in haste can be amended or removed, but frequently the damage is done and, once the discussion has moved on, editing becomes largely irrelevant.

Facebook groups can be created to bring together people around specific interests. These groups empower the creator of the group, and other people that they choose, to manage the group membership, choose who can share material in the group, and who can view the group. However, there is no scope to structure a discussion – the only measures are to remove material or to remove individuals. In a fast-moving discussion, administrative decisions have to be taken at speed without a chance to think through the consequences. Without structures beyond those Facebook provide, these measures can be entirely at the whim of administrators, rather than in the interests of developing a discussion.

Misunderstandings, inaccuracies and fallings-out were, of course, a factor in day-to-day life long before social media. But the sole use of the written word transforms any communication. A joke is different as a verbal interaction than when read, for example. The increased anonymity heightens the scope for confusion and misinterpretation. Both of these factors place real limits on what can be achieved through discussion on Facebook or other similar mediums.

Organising on Facebook also subjects the campaign to the policies of Facebook. This has already led to various other attempts to set up rival social networks, such as LabourStarts UnionBook. Lacking the functionality and publicity of Facebook though, this project has stalled. However, as more people move into political activity, and explore ways of organising, alternatives will no doubt develop.

Party programme

A number of new political formations have developed with online organisation at their core. Italy has witnessed the growth of the Five Star Movement (M5S). Set against Silvio Berlusconi’s domination of the media, comedian Bepe Grillo’s blog had become the seventh most read blog worldwide (The Guardian, 3 January 2013), despite being written in Italian, and Italy’s comparatively low rate of household computer ownership. M5S mobilised up to a million to plaza rallies in the run-up to the 2013 elections and, on the appeal of sweeping away the corrupt elite via the ballot box, won a 25% share of the popular vote.

Roberto Casaleggio, who co-founded M5S together with Grillo, has argued that websites, and blogs represent “a new reality – a new world”, and that M5S is pioneering “a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state”. The reality has proven somewhat different. The chance to discuss in blog comment sections, with one of Grillo’s blog entries passing 10,000 comments, still suffers from many of the same problems as Facebook discussions.

M5S, defining itself as a movement rather than a party, has no real internal mechanisms to decide, and change, party policy or leadership. In the run-up to the 2013 elections, Grillo expelled two M5S sitting councillors, one for complaining about the lack of internal democracy, another for violating one of Grillo’s rulings. When online selections for parliamentary candidates took place, 20,252 votes were cast, despite M5S boasting 255,000 members.

The Pirate Party in Germany is perhaps the most technologically developed political organisation. It has developed software, known as piratepad, which can allow hundreds of people to edit the same document simultaneously. It asks members to contribute slogans and design ideas, and simultaneously broadcasts caucuses of parliamentary groups. LiquidFeedback, the Pirate Party’s major programming innovation, allows members to propose and vote on policies. Policies are divided into categories, and members can delegate their vote to another member for categories in which they specialise.

This system can involve intense and time-consuming debate, which can exclude many from the decision-making process. It is also dependent on members choosing to engage in policy debates on the matters of the day. Morozov gives the example that only 20 votes were cast in a poll to say how the party’s representatives should vote in a regional parliament debate on the proposed outlawing of male circumcision. Also, while policy can be proposed on subjects that individual members feel passionate about, this is not always the most pressing issue for the party as a whole to discuss. The limitations of organising on this basis have been recognised by the Pirate Party itself, which only uses LiquidFeedback as a consultative measure, with decisions taken at Pirate Party conferences actually deciding policy.

As Morozov highlights, LiquidFeedback is effectively an elaborate system for consulting Pirate Party members. It “is all well and good, but a revolution in party building it isn’t; well before blogs and wikis, there existed outlets – from party newspapers to actual meetings of local party cells – in which ordinary party members had plenty of opportunities to express their views”.

Both the German Pirate Party and the Italian M5S have seen votes shoot up, winning seats in local, regional and, in the case of M5S, national parliaments. But both have more recently seen decline and disarray. M5S has seen a number of expulsions and resignations of senators. The Pirate Party’s leader resigned a week after its collapse in electoral support in the 2013 general election. Both formations have pioneered organisational methods, but have neglected to develop a coherent political programme to build a party around.

Developments in networked communication mean that it is possible to communicate ideas and thoughts near-instantaneously, and receive feedback at a similar rate. Why then should debate around a policy finish, and plans for implementation begin? Grillo would deny being the M5S leader, and the Pirate Party’s elected representatives often deny being spokespeople. All members of both of these groups are, in theory, individuals, with as many rights as any other member. This can leave those actually developing and implementing the party’s programme unaccountable. As Casaleggio has baldly stated, if M5S’s internal critics “want to change the rules, they can create another movement”.

These models have been tested out and found to be wanting. This does not mean that these, or other similarly-structured organisations, could not further develop. But it will be the absence of a genuine alternative that will allow groups such as these to partially harness genuine anger. Morozov quotes a participant in the Egyptian revolution: “We are the spark that ignites the world; we know how to inflame things… But when we have a strong entity that can stand on its own feet – when we can form a government tomorrow – then we become an alternative”.

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April 2014