Dear Tristram Hunt

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.

Kind regards

Paul Bernal

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.

10 thoughts on “Dear Tristram Hunt

  1. Good stuff. I must admit, what caught my eye when I read Hunt’s piece was his second argument, to the effect that marches and demonstrations are *also* unreal (in some way); as a result I dismissed the whole argument as incoherent and made in bad faith. But you’ve shown that there is something there worth taking at least seriously enough to demolish!

    On clicktivism & the rest, I asked John Curtice once whether he thought there was any substance to (e.g.) Clay Shirky’s critique of the Howard Dean campaign, viz. that online activism was giving people a warm glow but substituting for the hard graft of street-level organising. He said he thought not – however many people might seem to be rallying to the flag online, as a proportion of the population it amounted to hardly anyone, and by and large it was the same hardly anyone that was turning out to attend meetings, post leaflets etc. This is certainly borne out – or at least echoed – by my experience since joining CAMRA a few years ago. If you were to make a Venn diagram of the respective groups of people with job titles (‘branch secretary’, ‘brewery liaison officer’ etc), people who volunteer at festivals, people who turn out for socials and people who just pay their subs, you might think you’d have a relatively evenly-graduated set of concentric circles, albeit with the outside ring being a bit larger. In fact the first three are basically the same group (particularly once you’ve allowed for *former* holders of branch offices), one small circle within a much larger one. Activism of any kind really isn’t for everyone.

  2. What enormous victory? Did Labour win a major election? Has there been a grassroots revolution over the summer? Seemingly not, given how unenthused were those who pay the Labour Party’s bills, year in and year out, and who provide plenty of man and woman power at election time:

    “The union’s relationship with the party is changing and shrinking. In the 1994 leadership election (won by Tony Blair) nearly 800,000 affiliated union members voted. In 2010 leadership ballot papers were circulated to 2.7 million political levy-payers including some that were already party members. At that time, less than 10% voted ie 270,000.

    This time ballot papers were only sent to political levy-payers who had been recruited to become registered party supporters by their union. A total of 148,192 ballot papers were sent out to this group but only 71,546 were returned.

    This means the importance of the union vote relative to party members is is long-term decline. In 1994 nearly 800,000 union members and 170,000 members voted in the leadership election.

    In 2010 it was 250,000 union members and 127,000 party members respectively, with the ratio falling from 5:1 to 2:1. In this election 245,520 party members voted, only 71,546 union members a ratio of about 3.5 members to every one affiliate .

    This is the first time the number of union members voting is lower than party members.

    This has long-term consequences for the future funding of the Labour party …”

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/sep/12/labour-leadership-result-shows-how-fast-party-is-changing

    Social media obviously has its limits, even when promoting the opportunity to vote for a secular saint!

    Is a mostly middle class movement really a grassroots one? And is that not the issue with social media that it is giving a voice to people who are already cuckoos in our society? Cuckoos whose views dominate the media, the universities, politics and so on. Social exclusion now encompasses digital exclusion and so I think echo chambers, which contribute to exclusion, are not to be welcomed or encouraged. Apart from anything else they cause those living within them to develop extreme views of the world. Views even more detached from those of others than might otherwise be the case, if they were not living the social media dream.

    The Labour Party’s membership at the time of the General Election was unrepresentative of the people who voted Labour on May 7th. As a result of the self selecting electorate that joined, mostly, but not wholly to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s membership is now even more unrepresentative of the people who voted for the party in May. The membership is well to the left of people who vote Labour.

    The membership of the Labour Party, therefore, is more out of touch with the voters, the only people who really count, than the Members of Parliament that most of the current membership had no hand in helping to elect last May. One is inclined to think that the new membership needs to spend some time getting acquainted with Labour’s voters in the real world rather than high fiving each other virtually or otherwise. Moreover, one is disinclined to give much weight to those new (and retread) ‘activists’ with their ready insights into how election campaigns are run, regardless of the policies of the party. A little humility all around might not come amiss. After all, 40.5% of the party did not vote for Corbyn and are not going anywhere. And the trades unions’ memberships are not supportive of at least some of Corbyn’s proposed policies (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/20/unite-boss-reiterates-support-for-corbyn-after-union-officials-back-burnham).

    Too much time is being spent bigging up the air war, because it won Corbyn the leadership. As did a set of policies designed to stimulate the erogenous zones of a mostly white, mostly male, mostly middle class selectorate. One has to hand it to Corbyn’s team, they ran the slickest, most efficient and best spun of the four campaigns with a pitch aimed almost wholly at the expanding party membership. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall may have thought they were fighting a mock General Election, but the Corbynettes have been acting like they won one in September. Hence presumably why they feel no need to discuss the reasons why Labour lost the only General Election held in 2015. The Corbynettes are proving to be a case study in mass cognitive dissonance. They have no desire to step out of the echo chamber. They are quite comfortable where they are.

    The Labour Party spent most of the leadership election speaking to itself and then spent the conference ignoring why it lost in May. And now, with the advent of Momentum, the Corbynettes are seeking to inflate a bubble within which to ignore the people who vote Labour whilst at the same time creating (via online recruitment) a party within a party. The Corbynettes’ echo chamber is being augmented with a tin ear. Why? Do they fear hearing the opinions of people, who Corbyn says should vote Labour, that might be at variance with their own? People who might have something very uncharitable to say about, for example, migration?

    Elections, one or more of which happen nearly every Thursday somewhere in the United Kingdom, are won without the use of social media. And given how many people do not use social media extensively then the next General Election will be won on the ground and not in the air. The air should support the ground and not the other way around. If one learnt anything from this year’s General Election then it is that the Twitteratti (and their opinions) need to be listened to a lot less and the average voter a lot more. 51% of the electorate will be over 55 in 2020. They, more than any other group, will decide the outcome of the General Election that year. Are they all hardened Tweeters?

    Moreover, if Corbyn and the Corbynettes are really serious about engaging with the 34% nationally (33% in North Islington) who were registered to vote in May, but did not do so then they are going to have to step away from social media and get some fresh air. Dear heavens, they may even have to go canvassing and leafleting! Moreover, they are going to have to (re?)discover the skill of listening to people with whom they do not necessarily agree; to take part in a conversation; to ask questions, not just mouth slogans and to (re?)discover how to persuade people of an argument. I am not hopeful, because too many of the Corbynettes, like Corbyn himself, lack emotional intelligence.

    Only people lacking empathy with their fellow voters would ignore, say, the legitimate concerns that some of them have about migration by urging them to hug a migrant (and/or stop being racist). That is where the social media echo chamber has brought us. A disconnection between those who might be deemed natural Labour voters and the membership of the Labour Party, most of whom are not activists in any real sense. And now a conservative Labour leader who personifies that disconnection, whilst ignoring its very existence, preferring instead his own certainties that were developed in a pre-virtual world echo chamber. Now that the dust on his election triumph has finally settled, the disconnections on key topics like the economy, social security and migration remain. Still, now the Corbynettes are developing Momentum to kick those cans down the road …

    • John, that’s big enough to be a blog post on its own – and nothing much that I really disagree with. The point isn’t that social media solves everything: it doesn’t. The point I’m trying to make is that it can help in particular things, in particular ways, and we’re foolish if we reject it in its entirety without understanding that, we miss a great deal.

  3. Is there any empirical evidence of the value of Twitter?

    When I started my Civil Service career, I worked in a policy division devoted to Small Business and Tourism issues. Part of our work, arguably too much, involved responding to correspondence from a variety of stakeholders. We sought to use the content of the letters to identify themes and issues worthy of further research and may be, just may be changes to legislation and/or submissions to the Treasury. Our task was made more difficult by letter campaigns, organised by pressure groups. Back then, they really copied (or cut) and pasted to make a point by the sack load.

    Unsurprisingly, what excited the people heading small business groups was quite often not in the public interest or even their own members, but time and resources were spent responding to formulating a response and replying to each letter of a campaign. Meanwhile, a single letter worthy of detailed attention or may be a few spread out over so many months probably got missed.

    I gather there are organisations reviewing their online strategies to reduce the high level of background noise that is drowning out the messages to which they feel they need to hear. There is a movement away from inter-actions that do not add value, even amongst media operations. There are arguably too many hashtags and too much ReTweeting going on for much to be learnt from Twitter.

    If intelligence services lack the necessary software to make effective use of the results of mass surveillance then how much more do political parties lack the capacity to sift, 24/7, social media content? And, given limited resources, would they be better not bothering? What of value do you think they would be missing?

    One of the traits I was encouraged to develop during my career was to challenge received wisdom. The emphasis on ever increasing online inter-actions being intrinsically a good thing has long since achieved that status, despite there being growing evidence that, in particular, it adds to rather than reduces the cost of delivery of services in the voluntary and community, public and private sectors. One ponders, if the ICT guys, who are not known for being particularly extrovert, are trying to make the world one in which they feel more comfortable, regardless of the cost and impact on others …

    When I was appraising bids for public funding it was not unusual to ask how the prospective project was to be promoted. Quite often the answer was a website, even for projects of short duration, focusing on hard to reach groups. We used to recommend the cheaper and more effective, in the context of the projects, option of networking and leaflets. These days I imagine they would be adding Twitter and Facebook accounts to their proposed websites. Time I think for a serious, objective appraisal of the value of social media in contexts like political campaigning.

    If opinion polling of representative samples of the electorate fails to predict, with any accuracy, the outcome of a General Election then what value may be ascribed to sampling the opinions of a group known to be unrepresentative? I am a big fan of evidence based approaches as an advocate of Total Quality Management and have in the past been involved in discussions about how to use TQM to improve campaigning. Yes, I think Twitter has some value, but how does it contribute to a process of Plan, Do, Observe, Act and repeat, ad infinitum? We want to stop the Observation taking place at the point when the ballots start tumbling out of the boxes on polling night, because by then it will be too late to Act on that information and refine our inter-actions with the voters.

    • I have a feeling you’re striking too deeply here: Twitter is neither the solution nor the problem. It’s just one of many factors in the grand scheme of things. As for empirical evidence, I’m sure it’s there, but I haven’t seen it in relation to this country. I’ve seen studies of the role in the Arab Spring, but those studies have produced very varied results. In the US, I suspect there’s a huge amount of private research going on….

  4. I find it amusing to see Twitter, with its vast variety of news and other information, served up on a daily basis, described as narrow! What adjective then, would he use for a person who reads a tabloid newspaper, and watches the news once a day around 6 pm? Of whom I know at least 2 dozen.

    Personally I think its sour grapes, beaten to the punch, and all that. Cameron’s rattled too, rattled enough to go to the trouble to mention how ineffective Twitter is in his speech.

    All the best!
    Malc

  5. Good post. Twitter is an excellent way for Deaf and disabled people to engage with politics and politicians. It overcomes access and communication barriers – I bet Mr Hunt didn’t even think about that.

    When Labour MPs carry on as if things are a replay of the general election, they are implying that we all need to think more like the Tories and yield to Tory policy. No thanks, opposition please.

  6. Very good insight into the ‘world’ of Triston Hunt. One thing I feel is lacking is a request for Mr Hunt to evaluate and realise that his ‘true’ inner beliefs lie within another right wing party currently led by Mr Cameron.

    Sadly this request would apply to many who hold the inner power within ‘Newer’ Labour. The new leader may have many values better than the old ‘new’ but the power ‘mongrels’ will not give up their hold easily. I predict an impasse or more likely. “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!”

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