Sunday 15 November 2020

Labour's Anti-Vax Social Media Ban

Switiching on the television this morning, up popped Jonathan Ashworth on BBC Breakfast. He was there to explain Labour's latest policy announcement: the need for clamping down on anti-vaxxers online. Or, to be more accurate, introducing a range of penalties to force social media firms to clear this stuff from their platforms. He said this content is "exploiting people's fears, their mistrust of institutions and governments and spreading poison and harm." Can't really disagree. He argued this was not the same as voicing genuine concerns about the Coronavirus vaccine or raising questions of the government's management of the crisis, but with the roll out of a vaccine to begin soon (we'll see) it's imperative something is done to stop the flood of disinformation.

I have some sympathy with the intentions behind Labour's policy. Covid conspriracism is annoying. Its adjacency to QAnon and right wing conspiracy politics makes it worrying. Its mobilisations have undoubtedly spread infections, which is far more dangerous to the mainly middle-aged people attracted to these politics than the summer's Black Lives Matter protests. And, from a public health point of view, irresponsible and potentially dangerous. While the coming politics of vaccination are set to revolve around who should be prioritised, public anger at queue jumping, and how far down the age range the programme is going to reach, Covid denialism and the standard anti-vax "scepticism" is creating a hardened bloc of refuseniks. Some estimates put them at around 20% of the population. They might be protected by herd immunity when everyone else gets their medicine, or they might find themselves hit with another wave of Coronavirus with the added health costs and unnecessary deaths it would bring. And this creates new dangers - Covid-19 is a slow evolving virus, but every infection is an opportunity for mutation and potentially more virulent and deadly strains in the future. This is not idle speculation, as Denmark's mink farm crisis demonstrates. How to prevent this state of affairs?

There are no easy answers, and neither is simply banning anti-vax content. For one, nothing puts rocket boosters under conspiracy theories quite like authorities taking action against their "revealed truth". A social media ban might hinder the denialism, at least intially, but reinforces its key tenets and converts what is stupid into something seductive. The second is, despite the assurances made by Labour's health shadow this morning, we're getting into thought crime territory. The original lockdown was necessary, and it drove the infection rate right down. We'll see what the results of its half-arsed sequel will be, but between March and May the balance between public health pressure and the encroachment on liberty was a mess. Like banning people from visiting the countryside, or the allowance of a single hour outside for exercise and whatnot, or the exemptions enjoyed by recently late of Downing Street advisors. The outcome was more farce than tragedy, but the outcome of a ban might have unforeseen consequences.

For example, if the fining structure accompanying Labour's suggestions are especially punitive your Instagrams, Facebooks, and Twitters are going to introduce pre-screening on a large scale. Done on the basis of key words and key phrases, this means a lot of material discussing the politics of the vaccine are going to get blocked, or held forever in moderation hell until some luckless employee gets to eyeball it. Mission creep therefore is inevitable, embedded in the architecture of compliance each firm devises. With the left in particular having its reach actively stymied by Facebook, we know what this means for critical media. And if the flows of discourse outside the bounds of establishment media is blocked, guess who wins? Why, the traditional news and print outlets.

This is not a conspiracy though. Labour aren't part of the "great reset" or some such nonsense, but it does offer pointers about its political direction under Keir Starmer. Speaking on Desert Island Discs, he reiterated his commitment to retaining Labour as a broad church, despite recent events. Be that as it may, Keir's range and style of opposition versus the Tories is quite limited and technocratic, avoiding substantive issues like the roots of Tory incompetence, the corrupt abandonment of procurement rules by the government to shovel public funds into private pockets (family and friends of top Tories, obviously), and a studied avoidance of talking about the dead. This is not just because Keir is looking at improving his standing and wanting to avoid the charge of point scoring, it says something about his politics: he is looking to preserve state authority.

On BBC Breakfast, Jonathan Ashworth said the ban was driven by a desire to restore public trust in institutions. A laudible aim for someone entirely inside Labourism's statist traditions, but also hopelessly naive. Covid conspiracism and the irreverenace it feeds off is inseparable from long-term processes of political disengagement. And yet, it's worth remembering structural forces are not mechanical. As the outcome of social relationships the actions of condensed collective actors, like parties acting through democratic politics, the media, and the state, can steer such tendencies and lay the grounds for their evaporation, or their reinforcement. One such driver is parties saying one thing and doing another, like "forgetting" pledges made or backtracking on commitments to referendum results, or working against the interests of the people who voted for you in the first place. Ultimately disengagement and, by extension, anti-vaxxers are a political problem and need to be dealt with politically. The latest "policy" falls short of this. Not only is the game Labour playing potentially dangerous, it's doomed not to work.

Image Credit


Karl Greenall said...

And rightly so...
How poor does Labour always have to be at playing the political game outside of intra-party struggle?
It gives the Tories and their battalions the edge.
I am afraid that on the showing so far, the departure of Boris and the ensuing reinvention of the Tories as a post-Brexit recovery machine will do it again, with the next Labour PM being Starmer's successor another two or three parliament's down the line.

Boffy said...

Labour is following the Tories in becoming a Bonapartist party of order and censorship. Of course, the anti-vaxxers are nuts, so are all trolls, but in the end you have to rely on the fact that the majority of people will recognise them as such, and respond to rational argument, and will just tune out the nutters.

Otherwise, who decides what is just fake news or conspiracy theory? We see it inside Labour now, with the suspension of Corbyn over anti-Semitism. In fact, the EHRC Report - which Labour should not have cooperated with in line with the long standing Labour movement principle of not allowing the bourgeois state, and bourgeois institutions to interfere with our inner workings - said the same thing as Corbyn that Labour was not institutionally anti-Semitic, and that even the number of reported instances was actually small compared to the size of the party. It also said that it was not anti-Semitic to say that (how could it when it had itself just said it) or to challenge the extent. Yet, Starmer still suspended Corbyn, even for just responding to the Report.

Now we see the Starmer-rights suspending CLP officials for even discussing Corbyn's suspension, and passing resolutions calling for it to be reversed. In other words the same kind of authoritarian methods of supressing debate, of dictating what can and cannot be discussed.

Its no wonder that Starmer has become a bigger Brexiter than Johnson, a bigger proponent of authoritarian measures of lockdown, because he clearly has these same Bonapartist tendencies in the way he intends to rule the LP. The left inside Labour needs to wake up to these dangers, before its too late.

Anonymous said...

"which is far more dangerous to the mainly middle-aged people attracted to these politics than the summer's Black Lives Matter protests"

Only if you assume that none of the BLM protesters came into contact with the elderly after protesting.

Blissex said...

«Yet, Starmer still suspended Corbyn, even for just responding to the Report.»

And that proves that J Corbyn has been thoroughly exonerated by the EHRC report, because if it contained even the shadow of a sliver of a hint of his culpability he would have been expelled because of the content of the report, not "merely" suspended because of commenting on the report.
That Keir Starmer could only use that excuse shows how complete the exoneration has been.

Boffy said...

"Only if you assume that none of the BLM protesters came into contact with the elderly after protesting."

It takes two to tango. I'm sure the younger people did not force contact on to older people. If older people put themselves at risk by not isolating themselves from potential infection that is their choice - though one we all have to pay for in the burden imposed on the NHS etc.

As for any elderly people in care who rely on younger people providing it, then its up to the NHS and Care Homes to provide carers with the adequate PPE and contact protocols to prevent transmission. That of course, is something they have both failed to do miserably from the beginning, which is why virtually all the deaths are amongst the elderly and sick in these institutions, and not amongst the younger members of society whose lives are being wrecked by the idiotic lockdown.

Blissex said...

«Labour's latest policy announcement: the need for clamping down on anti-vaxxers online. Or, to be more accurate, introducing a range of penalties to force social media firms to clear this stuff from their platforms.»

Why is this a surprise? The strategy is to win the votes of red wall elder voters and of affluent tory voters further south, and both segments have the reputation of being authoritarians, so New, New Labour is trying hard to pander to authoritarians, which also matches well the desires of the "security state" and the record of New Labour with their attempts to introduce long periods of prison without trial, ASBOs, etc.

Anonymous said...

Be a great way of clawing back some cash though, All those fines. Lmao, they won't stop anything at all just Charge Peeps for saying shite.