Peter Frost discusses the uses and abuses of social media, and how its innately social character makes it a useful communications platform for socialists.
Lenin died in January 1924. It was only later that very same year that in John Logie Baird’s laboratory the first ever flickering television pictures appeared on a screen anywhere in the world. Proper television would come a few years later and broadcast TV would be several decades arriving. The fact is Lenin never saw a television. Broadcast radio too didn’t reach the Soviet Union until late in the year that Lenin died -1924.
Lenin did use two way radio to talk to communists in other countries. He also recorded some of his speeches on discs in the 1920’s and some were played to meetings and other gatherings. He understood the need to get his message across, but for him the world of communications didn’t get much passed personal speeches, newspapers and perhaps some early black and white cinema. He certainly understood the need to use the most up to date techniques in the revolutionary struggle. These would include now long-forgotten, but at the time cutting-edge media such as propaganda trains and agitprop theatre.
About the time Lenin, then in exile, was editing the newspaper Iskra in a tiny office in an old school on Clerkenwell Green London – in the building we now call the Marx Memorial Library - he wrote:
In our opinion, the starting-point of our activities, the first step towards creating the desired organisation, or, let us say, the main thread which, if followed, would enable us steadily to develop, deepen, and extend that organisation, should be the founding of an All-Russian political newspaper.
A newspaper is what we most of all need; without it we cannot conduct that systematic, all-round propaganda and agitation, consistent in principle, which is the chief and permanent task of Social-Democracy in general and, in particular, the pressing task of the moment, when interest in politics and in questions of socialism has been aroused among the broadest strata of the population.
Never has the need been felt so acutely as today for reinforcing dispersed agitation in the form of individual action, local leaflets, pamphlets, etc., by means of generalised and systematic agitation that can only be conducted with the aid of the periodical press.
It may be said without exaggeration that the frequency and regularity with which a newspaper is printed (and distributed) can serve as a precise criterion of how well this cardinal and most essential sector of our militant activities is built up.
It is hard to imagine what Lenin would think if he heard the popular view today that printed newspapers will soon be dead, replaced by TV, radio, the internet and the rapidly expanding world of social media and other new means of communications. Email is probably here to stay, but just as I am writing this article I have had a message saying somebody may be holding my email account to ransom, and global internet pirates are causing havoc all over the virtual globe. It will be sorted by tea time, apparently.
Revolutionary communication systems have come and gone. Do you remember Citizen’s Band (CB) Radio? Free talking but only with a Country and Western accent.
When in 2011 riots broke out all over Britain Murdoch’s, the Mail’s make-it-up merchants summoned up a moral panic, as they like to do. This folk devil was a mobile telephone with a rather clever dedicated message distribution system. If the Tory rags were to be believed any fourteen-year-old could organise a full scale riot or a monster raving looting party with just a few key strokes on her or his wonder machine. It was called a Blackberry.
A brief survey among my current circle of 14 year old mates has established that the Blackberry is long dead, drained of its last drop of street credibility and in its place any self respecting rioter needs to get down to the phone shop and loot themselves an iphone.
Today it seems you only have to blink to miss the introduction of a new means of communication that promises to revolutionise how ideas are going to be developed and more importantly communicated. It is hard to keep up with them. Here is a list of some of the most important worldwide social media. A few of the numbers and geographical locations may well surprise you. I’ll start with those specifically targeted at the Chinese nation.
QQ is a Chinese social network instant messaging system with over 800 million members. It is now also offered in six other languages: English, French, Japanese, Spanish, German and Korean.
QZone is a another social network available only in China this one with over 600 million members.
Sina Weibo is a social network with over 150 million users. It is one of the most popular in China.
YY is a unique social network in China that supports group video chats with over 100,000 members simultaneously watching a single person performing some activity or making a speech.
That list is just part of the Chinese social networking world. If as Trump and his FBI and CIA spooks and our home based GCHQ and MI5 and 6 all agree, the Chinese are training a whole generation of hackers and internet pirates, they are obviously well on their way to world domination.
Outside of China we have Viber a social network with text and voice messaging between 250 million members in over 30 languages.
Snapchat is a messaging social network that allows sharing of photos and videos for a limited period of time. It has over 200 million users in over 15 languages.
Line is a Japanese messaging social network with over 200 million users mostly in Japan.
VK, previously known as VKontakte, is one of the largest Russian Facebook style social networks with over 100 million users.
Taringa! has 75 million members and is one of the largest social networks in Latin America.
Meetup is a social network that enables a group to meet offline to discuss a specific topic. It was originally created for politics but has now expanded to cover any topic like fashion, games, and movies.
Skyrock is a Facebook type social network mainly targeted towards the French speaking world. The social network is also available in English, Dutch, Italian, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.
BlackPlanet is a largely matchmaking social network targeted towards African Americans. It also has forums for jobs and political discussions.
Care2 is social networking site that connects activists from around the world with other individuals, organisations, and responsible businesses.
Myspace was once the largest social network in the US. but it now has less than 20 million active users and the number is falling fast.
LinkedIn offers boring boastful business networking for 350 million want-a-jobs.
WhatsApp is another instant-messaging-focused social network with over 700 million members globally. Free messaging and phone calls worldwide. Owned by Facebook.
Skype offers free calls on the internet based phone system, with over 300 million active users.
Instagram is a photo and video-sharing social network with over 300 million members. It is owned by Facebook.
Twitter enables it’s 300 million users to send and receive 140-character tweets. Twitter is available worldwide. President Trump uses it to try and run the USA early every morning.
There are thousands more platforms. The only ones I use regularly are email and Facebook, the world’s largest social network with over two billion members and annual advertising revenues exceeding $12 billion.
Facebook made at least 250 million dollars in the US presidential election. It also made a huge amount in the run-up to Britain’s general election but it is keeping secret exactly how much and who exactly it was working for. Lynton Crosby, Teresa May’s Australian dirty tricks Guru, certainly got Teresa to shake the Magic Money Tree but she kept how much she harvested very close to her chest. Overall we do know the Tories spent many times as much as Labour on the election. How much of it went to Facebook we shall never know.
I thought it would be worth taking a look at the huge worldwide “big brother” organisation that is Facebook and how it tries to influence the way you and I vote. It is a murky pit in which to try to find the information you need. Not really what we should expect from something that says its business is easy communication. Just before our election an investigation by the BBC programme Panorama revealed the Machiavellian use that Theresa May and her Tory gang were making of Facebook and other parts of what I have taken to calling the anti-social media.
I do use Facebook, it is the only social media I do use. I find it an amusing and convenient way of sharing messages, news, jokes and lots more with relatives, friends, comrades, other writers from the Morning Star and fellow fans of the people’s paper. I find Facebook adverts and the way they are so obviously targeted to my interests and statistics sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying and even sometimes rather embarrassing.
If you are an old man like me — they know my age — and look at a lot of Russian websites, which you might very well if you are interested in the 100th anniversary year of the Russian Revolution, the algorithms of Silicon Valley might decide what you are really looking for are Russian prostitutes or mail-order Moscow brides. Well that’s my story, your honour, and I’m sticking to it.
Once I had managed to get rid of ads for Olga, Svetlana and her mates, they changed to rather a lot of patent medicines, herbal Viagra, stairlifts and rather too many funeral plans and undertakers' special offers. Frankly I’d have been happier with Olga and her chums.
Just as amusing and annoying as this miss-targeted advertising is the curious narrowness of responses that Facebook allows to messages. If a Facebook friend sends me a bit of news it offers only four ways I can deal with it. I can ignore it, comment on it, share it or like it. The easiest is always just to tick the ‘like’ box. This can lead to some rather surreal happenings.
Recently a Facebook friend reported that she had tripped outside her house and fallen badly grazing her knees and elbows. Before you could say Mark Zuckerberg there were 30 plus of her friends reporting they ‘liked’ the fact she was sprawled on the pavement covered in dirt and blood.
In the days running up to our General Election last June I found a remarkable number of arriving posts were singing the praises of Theresa May and others warning me about the dastardly behaviour of Jeremy Corbyn. Too many of the latter came from Labour Party members and supporters still telling me Jeremy Corbyn was leading Labour to electoral disaster. As we all now know that isn’t what happened. Ukip, Liberal Democrats and a few others also came uninvited into my pages. Liberals as usual lied and said exactly what they thought people wanted to hear. It was usually that only the Lib Dem candidate was the only one who could defeat a sitting Tory.
One thing I have never found the slightest bit amusing about Facebook was the regular sprinkling of racist, homophobic, xenophobic and just generally reactionary comments and so-called jokes that arrive and have to be deleted every day. One of the worst offenders is the racist gang that calls itself Britain First. This bunch of fascist thugs told BBC’s Panorama that they paid Facebook to repeatedly promote their videos. Britain First now claims 1,616,519 Facebook supporters. In fact its actual membership would fit comfortably into a G4S prison bus.
Britain First fool many people into ‘liking’ them by posting Facebook messages showing starving dogs, appeals to support British soldiers abroad and even claiming Lee Rigby, the army drummer murdered by terrorists in Woolwich as their own. Rigby’s family demanded they stop using his name and image wanting nothing to do with this fascist crew but still people said they ‘liked’ tortured dogs, British troops, and the murdered drummer. Britain First claims that all those people support the whole bunch of racist and reactionary beliefs of Britain First. Clever!
One person who did seem to be either a genuine member or supporter of Britain First of course was Thomas Mair the white supremacist terrorist who murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Panorama discovered that rabid racists like Britain First were not the only ones buying political influence via Facebook. So are mainstream sophisticated political campaigns, parties and even individuals seeking high office.They pay Facebook to use our data and the contents of our Facebook pages to target us for support, funds and votes.
In the EU referendum Panorama revealed that both sides used Facebook. The targeting was amazingly precise. One example showed how Cornish fishermen were messaged telling them if they voted to leave, they would be able to change fishing industry regulations. There were many other such accurately targeted smaller groups. May’s advisers knew this only too well and were putting some of their millionaires’ donations to use buying targeted Facebook space. We will never know just how much they spent.
Meanwhile thousands of Labour and Corbyn supporters were using Facebook and other social media for free. At the time Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party for the second time I was chair of my local Constituency Labour Party. Our local membership jumped from around 250 to over 600. Existing members judged this must be the result campaigns on social media. What actually happened was that attendance at meeting stayed almost exactly the same: just one new member actually attended only one meeting, and spent the entire meeting explaining the benefits of social media and telling us our meetings were boring. (They were of course). We never saw her again or indeed any of that wave of new members.
Donald Trump’s US Presidential campaign relied on Facebook massively although of course his social media of choice seems to be early morning rambling and ungrammatical tweets. Neither Trump nor Facebook are saying how much was spent supporting his fight for the Whitehouse but independent experts put the cost at many millions of dollars. And it wasn’t just Trump. Facebook admits taking cash from both Republicans and Democrats, its employees helped out in both party headquarters steering the social media arm of both campaigns. Facebook, no doubt, played a pivotal role in our general election too, yet it is almost totally unregulated and unaccountable. Sometimes, it seems, almost invisible.
In the US all kinds of totally unfounded accusations were made about Hillary Clinton including criminal acts right up to murder. Corbyn has had almost exactly the same attacks, in his case mostly linking him to various terrorist actions and groups. Diane Abbott suffered even more rabid and virulent attacks but she is a woman and black so what does she expect? I wrote a tribute to Diane in the Morning Star on the eve of the election when she withdrew from the campaign very briefly due to ill health. It seemed to me we sometimes forgot what heroic service this first ever black woman MP has given to working class and socialist politics over her 60 plus years.
Yet still virtually everyone who commented on my article – some on Facebook reminded me about her choice of private education for her children, or some other perceived failing of hers. Some on the left really demand our pound of flesh.
Facebook is consistently tardy in taking down these fake news stories about Diane, Jeremy and many more. Indeed, some of them are still popping up on it today. Facebook offers the excuse that it doesn’t want to censor the internet. Yet a post I put up telling people my local Tory MP. Chris Heaton Harris was both a landlord and had voted against a law requiring landlords to make their properties suitable for human habitation disappeared from my Facebook page within minutes. Facebook it seems were paid a fortune to get a Tory victory on May 8 but it didn’t work and it seems like it won’t save Theresa May as Prime Minister for much longer and for that we can all be grateful.
Just as Lenin saw the need for a socialist newspaper to develop, organise and agitate for a revolution so today we need to use all the weapons of mass communication. They constantly change. Back in the early 1970s I was editor of the Young Communist League magazine Challenge. It was at a time that printed magazines were changing rapidly with the development of the now ubiquitous web offset printing technique. This allowed the almost unlimited creative use of design, photographs and colour. Depending on your political position, under my editorship we produced either the most colourful and exciting magazine in the history of the YCL or a petit-bourgeois trendy distraction from the real class struggle. I do hope that this isn’t a cue for a restart of that particular debate.
Today most media including social media as well as TV and radio is mostly not available to us, at least not on our terms. Does that mean that we should be pressing for the state ownership of various media – social and more conventional? I have divided opinions on this. I am reminded of a friend of mine, a communist journalist now long dead, who went to work in Mao Zedong’s China at the request of Harry Pollitt and the British Party. He was thrilled when the Chinese Party and Mao invented their own revolutionary communication media. As part of the Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom campaign, Mao announced that criticism of the Party and the State was to be encouraged. The main media for such criticisms were dàzìbào or big character wall-newspapers and my old comrade participated. producing a number of constructive, well thought out but critical articles.
Soon however Mao reversed the policy. Critics, particularly foreign visitors like my friend were arrested, persecuted and punished. Many were jailed. My pal’s treatment was very harsh and was to affect him for the rest of his life. although he never lost his faith in communism or the Chinese people.
We do, of course, here in Britain already have a nationalised TV Channel, the BBC, and anyone who watched Laura Kuenssberg and Nick Robinson’s general election coverage will realise that in this case state ownership does not guarantee unbiased reporting and political balance.
There has been one nationalised newspaper in the history of Britain. That was during the General Strike in 1926, and the sole purpose of the government setting up the paper was to break the strike. It was called the British Gazette and was a propaganda sheet edited by Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. The British Gazette had a circulation of around two million by the end of the strike. In response, the TUC published its own strike bulletin, the British Worker. The government succeeded in stopping the supply of paper available to the British Worker, meaning it was reduced from eight pages to a single sheet.
The very nature of social media makes state control even in a workers' state unwise and almost certainly impossible. Thankfully we still have our Morning Star – the miracle of Fleet Street - after 87 years it is still spelling out our messages in ink on paper a format that good old Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov would still recognise.
Social media, like Facebook, Twitter and many others, if we learn to use then and use them well, are a powerful weapon whoever owns and runs them. They can certainly help us in our struggle. But no doubt the establishment will do all it can to increase its control over the media. Indeed that particular move is already well under way.
As the anarchist in me never tires of saying in a slightly different context; “If voting (or indeed social media) really made any difference the buggers would ban it!”
So if we don’t chose to use social media, whatever its limitations then those who would seek to rule us – the capitalist class - certainly will. And the dream that Lenin wanted his newspaper to promote will take even longer to achieve.
Parts of this article first appeared in Peter Frost’s regular Friday Frosty’s Ramblings column in the Morning Star on 30 June 2017.