Monday 12 July 2021

Against Internet Authoritarianism

The hypocrite-in-chief tweets "This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves." You could be forgiven for thinking the racist taunting and trolling of the England team simply dropped out of the sky. In reality, Boris Johnson and his government greenlit this abuse once players started taking the knee. Tory MPs aplenty have trotted out the same line in the TV studios, in the media, and on their socials: solidarity against racism is illegitimate, protesting against it at home and abroad is "divisive", and Black Lives Matter is a thuggish, Marxist movement that wants to rewrite history and destroy Britishness. The Tories might have affected a liberal, tolerant, anti-racist pose, but preferred to stoke their usual, doomed culture war nonsense instead. Individuals made the choice to leave racists comments, but they do so in a climate encouraged from the very top.

Unfortunately, whenever there is an outbreak of racism on social media it is immediately met with an authoritarian response. It's understandable. Open expressions of racism in the flesh involves significant social costs if one is not sheltered by position and privilege, and so attempted enforcement of these costs online are to be expected. These mores are ostensibly policed by the (hit and miss) complaints procedures platforms have, which those with long memories will recall were forced on social media firms after some resistance - they do like to pretend they're merely content carriers and not creators, after all. The problem is their inadequacy is well known. One account is banned, but another can quickly get spun up and the battle rejoined. Therefore, some have taken to imposing sanctions of their own. If a racist is stupid enough to say racist things from a clearly identifiable account, screen grabs and emails duly clutter up their employer's socials and inbox. I certainly don't care if some bigot loses their job for being a bigot, but we - the left - need to have a think about this. Call me old fashioned, but as a rule we shouldn't be calling on bosses to police the content of what their employees post online. Yes, it's a way of ensuring racism has its costs, but it suggests employers have a responsibility for the private activities outside of hours of their workers, a normative expectation anyone with a trade union bone in their body should be uncomfortable with. True, there isn't much one can do directly to shut racists and fascists down online, but let's not pretend mess reporting people to their boss, even if they are foul, is an act of militant anti-fascism.

Still, there is sympathy in the wider country for controls on the unruly, extremist spaces on social media. Speaking in the Commons earlier, Priti Patel - no wide-eyed innocent when it comes to stirring the pot - said the government will bring the Online Safety Bill forward. Ostensibly a charter against scammers, terrorists, and paedophile networks it carries provisions that will protect "democratically important" viewpoints. I.e. Protecting whatever bullshit the Tories and their MPs decide to disseminate platforms might otherwise censor or flag. It also expects social media firms to take action against "misinformation", whatever that is. For its part, Labour has decided being seen tougher than the Tories is where the opportunities lie. Wrong, consistently wrong.

Ever since politicians discovered that social media cannot be tamed and its refuseal to afford the reverence they think is due, a wing of mainstream politics have champed at the bit for some sort of regulation. It doesn't surprise me state-backed efforts at privileging the words and thoughts of the establishment are packaged with anti-nonce measures and curbs at suicide glorification. Who could disagree with these laws? Nor that Labour's faltering leadership are smashing the authoritarian button. A smidgen of an understanding is all it takes to know there will never be a system for stamping out racist communications. The removal of anonymity won't make a difference either, as anyone who has spent some time hanging out on Tory MPs' Facebook pages will tell you. What it would do is open users up to a host of dangers - having interests and lifestyles exposed to families that could put them at risk, political activities employers would be all too happy to curb, and naturally those overseas staking their lives organising against repressive regimes - many of whom are good friends to the UK government. If changing anonymity on social media has no effect on you, congratulations on being able to enjoy that privilege.

To be accurate, the government are not committed to curbing anonymous use, which leaves an opening for authoritarian Labour. But instead the bill does consider new laws for criminalising online behaviours, defined as those "likely to cause harm." Compliance with the law gives platforms an incentive to de-anonymise their users to avoid falling foul of the the legislation themselves, but the dividend is even more targeted, personalised advertising. The stick comes with a juicy carrot. Where does this leave the left? With the urgent need to think through relations of power and authority in the digital age. We must resist the drift to constituting ourselves as an apparatus of voluntary surveillance, one that ends up policing platforms for the benefit of employers, bourgeois politicians, and the state. As always, the convincing alternative, the only alternative is the patient work of building our counterweights and working to make our ideas the popular, spontaneous common sense.

Image Credit


Phil said...

I certainly don't care if some bigot loses their job for being a bigot

I do, and for a number of reasons.

Humanitarian: if we were still in 1971, our bigot could get his cards on Thursday, sign on for the dole on Friday and walk into another job on Monday. If we were in 1991, the first two of those would apply. In 2021 getting somebody sacked risks condemning them to penury.

Legalistic: maybe people should get fired from a job for inappropriate conduct in the workplace, but nobody should get fired from a job for things they do, let alone say, off the job

Trade union: actually people shouldn't get fired as a sanction, full stop - at least, that should be our starting assumption

Liberal: people shouldn't get sanctioned in any way for speaking freely, however objectionable what they say is (after all, if it wasn't objectionable you wouldn't want to sanction it, and the question wouldn't arise)

Relativist: today's common sense is tomorrow's bigotry; you can't be sure that it won't be you that gets left behind next time, so you shouldn't call for any sanction that you wouldn't be prepared to suffer yourself

HTH, as they say.

chris s said...

And as a side note, they've specifically promised to make content on newspaper websites, including comments, exempt from this bill.

Blissex said...

«For its part, Labour has decided being seen tougher than the Tories is where the opportunities lie.»

As mentioned in a previous comment even an editorial on "The Guardian" now disagrees with that electoral strategy:
Sir Keir should seize the chance to anchor a bigger role of the state in popular sentiment. Voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 are leftwing on economic issues. [...] If Sir Keir opts for a quiet life, Labour risks ending up being Conservative-lite on the economy and Conservative-lite on its principles. It would be a mistake for him to think voters just want healthier versions of Tory policies. Labour’s “diet Johnson-ism” would pale in comparison to the real thing. [...] He would be going with the grain of his party if he tilts leftward on the economy.

Note however that “leftward on the economy” only rather than also on “its principles”.

It is still a major betrayal of thatcherism/"centrism", which is an electoral strategy that cannot fail, only be failed, according to the mandelsonians.
Following that logic Keir Starmer should move to the right of the Conservatives on the economy, for example by advocating the full deductibility from taxes (and not merely from income) of interest paid on mortgages, or a formal state guarantee that it will fully compensate property owners if property prices fall lower than the price for which a property was purchased originally.

Blissex said...

I certainly don't care if some bigot loses their job for being a bigot

«I do, and for a number of reasons. [...] In 2021 getting somebody sacked risks condemning them to penury. [...] people shouldn't get sanctioned in any way for speaking freely, however objectionable what they say is»

The argument used is that evil thoughts lead to evil words which lead to evil deeds, therefore if "bigots" speak their mind some bad people may be inspired or encouraged by those evil words to commit evil deeds like violence against victims, and therefore evil thoughts and words are, "objectively", violent aggression, and so many people would think that for bigots who hold evil thoughts and speak evil words “condemning them to penury” for the rest of their lives is the least sanction they deserve.

I guess that many people would welcome for the government to have a web page listing known "bigots" with name, address and employer, because they believe that have a right to know if their neighbours or employees has evil thoughts or speaks evil words that, "objectively", might put someone in danger of violent aggression. For example, who would want to have in their neighbourhood or among their colleagues some "vicious bigot" described by an MP in Parliament as a "f*cking racist and antisemite”?

Therefore many important people including this Conservative government argue that democracy needs guardrails, and believe that what George Orwell wrote in 1945 was profoundly misguided:

One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal. Over and above the familiar Marxist claim that ╩╗bourgeois liberty╩╝ is an illusion, there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ╩╗objectively╩╝ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines.

Blissex said...

«the bill does consider new laws for criminalising online behaviours, defined as those "likely to cause harm."»

Indeed many think that evil thoughts lead to evil words that lead to evil deeds, and it is best to sanction the evil thoughts and evil words before they can lead to evil deeds.

There are already statutes that cover a lot of that, for example:

All they need is a slight widening of the wording, if that is necessary at all.

BCFG said...

In my view, if you are not anonymous you should be able to say absolutely anything you like and accept the consequences. No censorship whatsoever for those who are not anonymous, no matter what they say.

And if you are anonymous you have to accept that you might be moderated.

Of course, this is censorship by the back door because people who are not anonymous will not go against the prevailing orthodoxy, for fear of losing their jobs, advertisers pulling out etc (Apple and Coca Cola would never dream of being seen in bad company and will use their power accordingly!). I mean, it isn't that long ago that most people would never have dared to support gay rights.

Still, I don't really see a more equitable option.

BCFG said...

“I certainly don't care if some bigot loses their job for being a bigot”

Or put another way, ‘bigots’ should be forced to starve and live a subsistence existence; you see the liberal left do believe in inequality for ‘bigots’ and their children!

In fact wokists need inequality so that the identified ‘bigots’ can suffer. And in that respect we have the perfect system for the job, globalised neo liberal capitalism with full on wokism thrown in for good measure. A mix of the market and woke legislation, I now see the glorious future.

With the cream at the top (heading off into space), the worthy middle classes in the middle, the worthy working classes just below the middle, the worthy poor supported at the bottom and the ‘bigots’, the unworthy, all festering in a cesspit of poverty, crime and misery (they deserved it!).

So that much different to what we have now. But that’s woke for you.

The new motto of the woke left, "All power to the advertisers!"