Dear Tristram Hunt
I was very interested to read about your speech at the University of Sheffield last night – sorry not to have been able to attend, but having read various reports, including some tweeted by your good self, I wonder if you have really understood some of the issues you’re discussing. I mean, there is a great deal that I agree with in what you say, but there is one particular issue that you have highlighted that I suspect needs more careful analysis: the role of social media, and of Twitter in particular.
You are quoted as saying that the Labour Party pays too much attention to the ‘narrow online world of Twitter’, and that ‘What the algorithms which underpin our digital lives do is take information about us and fire similar information back at us,’ There is a good deal of truth in that – indeed, academics and other experts have been discussing the issue for some time. Professor Cass Sunstein, in his seminal work ‘Republic 2.0‘, raised the issue of political polarisation within online communities in 2002. Eli Pariser’s ‘The Filter Bubble‘ in 2012 addressed the effect of Google algorithms on what we see and don’t see on the net, while my own Internet Privacy Rights in 2014 discusses what I call ‘Back-door Balkanisation’, through which communities are automatically polarised by the combination of Google algorithms, invasions of privacy and the desires of commercial enterprises. It is a known effect, albeit one known within fairly narrow communities. It is not, however, so simple as ‘algorithms firing back similar information at us: it is more complex than that, and I’d recommend some serious study in the area.
Most importantly, it is not something to be afraid of, but something to be understood and to be harnessed. It is something powerful and important – and something modern that you, as a self-proclaimed ‘moderniser’ should embrace. It is a feature of online communities that isn’t going away, either, no matter how many speeches are made against it, or how many articles are written about it in the Spectator or the New Statesman.
You see, there are two fundamental problems with dismissing the ‘narrow online world’: firstly that it consists of real people, and secondly that those people are likely to be exactly the politically engaged people who are crucial in getting a political party moving, particularly a party like the Labour Party, who doesn’t have the mainstream media on its side and doesn’t have massive donations from vested interests. Labour needs its activists, and those activists are more likely than most to use the social media. The clue is in the social. Dismissing the social media means dismissing the very people that you need on your side.
The fact that you and the other ‘modernisers’ dismiss the online world is sadly characteristic of their problems in the Labour leadership contest: a misreading of the nature of the contest. Many ‘modernisers’ seemed to think they were fighting a general election, trying to win the middle ground, to persuade the readers of the Daily Mail that their candidates were the best – when the contest was actually with Labour members and activists. Those members and activists were far from persuaded by the appeals to the Daily Mail. They were actively put off by the appearance of Tony Blair, the interventions of John McTernan (calling the nominators of Corbyn morons, for example) and by the suggestions that anyone voting for Corbyn was stupid. In your speech, Tristram, you suggest that Labour is losing touch with the voters – why did you not apply that logic to the leadership contest? It was the self-styled ‘modernisers’ and ‘moderates’ who had lost touch with the voters in the leadership contest – and seemed to have forgotten who those voters actually were.
And that brings me back to the online world, in its narrow, polarised, echo-chamber form. As I noted at the start, it is true that this effect can and does happen. However, it happens only when there are voices to echo, and when those echoes resonate. That is what happened with Corbyn and his enormous victory both in the social media and in the leadership contest. His words and views resonated within the relevant community, and gained power as a result.
The lesson to learn is not that this is irrelevant and should be avoided – but, as I said earlier, that it should be understood and harnessed. In some situations – and a leadership election is one of them – it is critical, and if the ‘modernisers’ had been modern enough to understand the online world they might have done a lot better in that contest. The online world can have great power and effect in some situations. It works really well for some forms of activism – and the ‘echo-chamber’ effect is actually one of the reasons for that.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it is the only tool, or that this lesson means we should spend all our time and effort in online campaigning. The ‘Twitter bubble’ is a bubble, just as the ‘Westminster bubble’ is a bubble, and the ‘media bubble’ is a bubble. Social media has its place, just as focus groups have their place, and working with the mainstream media has its place. They have strengths and weaknesses, and different uses at different times. Each should be used with huge pinches of salt, but should be used. Labour, and you and your fellow ‘modernisers’ need to understand that. Don’t dismiss the online world. If you are truly a ‘moderniser’ you should embrace it, understand it, and engage with it. Don’t treat Twitter as somewhere for you to broadcast your views, but as the interactive and responsive medium that it can be at its best. Then you might harness its power rather than fear it.
P.S. There are a great many people on Twitter and elsewhere who have the best interests of the Labour Party very much at heart, and who would be not only willing but able to help you and others with better engagement and understanding of the often unruly and sometimes intimidating online world. I am one – and having recently rejoined Labour I would be very happy to do my bit.