28 August 2016

Social Media: Rope for your own neck

Believing that your comments online were just off-the cuff and for a couple of friends is sometimes wrong. You might just be giving your adversaries the rope for your own neck.

In the last couple of decades, the growth of the Internet, both in terms of availability and functionality, has enabled progressive people to communicate and organise on a scale which in an earlier age would have been unimaginable. The victory of Jeremy Corbyn in his campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party in September 2015 could not have occurred without social media platforms. Yet the Internet, as a means of communication and organisation, is at the same time a powerful tool for surveilling progressive people and groups.

It is helpful to distinguish between two types of surveillance. The first is the kind which the former CIA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. This is an attempt by state agencies to gain access to all electronic communication, using methods, which if attempted by private citizens would constitute serious crimes. We cannot know whether the state agencies who gather information about left-wing people make that information available to our political opponents. But it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that this happens.

The second form of surveillance is perfectly legal: our political adversaries comb the net for our comments. Richer adversaries may employ professionals to do this: and of course various grey methods are deployed such as joining our “private” discussion groups with pseudonyms to find out what particular people are saying. Fishing the net for dirt and using it against us goes on all the time.

Of course, holding left-wing views and discussing them with others is not illegal in Britain, except in a small number of cases where the affair is covered by a court injunction. And there is a strong current of opinion which argues along the lines:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose,
And dare to make it known.

Whether “to publish and be damned” by broadcasting every opinion and every action to police, other state agencies and our political adversaries is a matter of debate. There is certainly something in the argument for openness, because constant vigilance, excessive secrecy and perennial distrust and paranoia can suffocate the left. So, yes, there is a case for openness, but not one that necessarily trumps everything. Here, though I want to focus on comments on social media can undermine the left in the struggle to support Jeremy Corbyn.

The rise in support for Jeremy Corbyn, and his election as leader of the Labour Party, has provoked a furious response from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Party bureaucracy. The latter has done everything it can to suspend left-wing members of the party, and to disqualify members and supporters from voting. The most typical line of attack against socialist members is to find some half (or badly) articulated comment on Facebook, which is alleged (nearly always untruthfully) to be antisemitic or otherwise abusive. These out-of-context Facebook comments are then misinterpreted and paraded in the media as evidence of wrongdoing. In a similar vein, voters in the leadership election are subject to disqualification because they have commented favourably on Facebook, often months previously, about the Green Party, Left Unity or similar progressive groups.

The fact is that unguarded discussions on social media among friends, and making comments not designed as polished prose for the whole world, is seriously unwise. The commentator, even if he or she doesn't realise it at the time, is often making the rope for his or her own neck. Again and again, though, this mistake is made. To resolve this problem I will make a couple of suggestions for people who send email or post in social media.

If you are sending a message to particular people, whether it is an opinion or information, you should ensure, as far as possible, that only the intended recipients have access to it, not the Internet searching public, and not the Internet Giants like Google and Facebook. Send your message end-to-end encrypted. Today, that is technically straightforward, if both or all of the parties use, for instance, the email provider Tutanota. Of course Tutanota is not a panacea, but it goes a very long way to solving this problem.

But if you really are intending to post to the big wide world, then think long and hard before you post, and consider using a pseudonym.

1 August 2016

Love Life by Zeruya Shalev

A powerful and psychologically rich penetration into the mind of woman having an affair with an older man.

The plot of the book is very simple. Ya’ara, a young Israeli woman, is married to a man of the same age, who is portrayed through her eyes as being well meaning but uninspiring. She meets Aryeh, an older man and a lifelong friend of her father, and starts a relationship with him. After a stormy emotional and sexual affair,  exciting for her at first and then revolting, the relationship implodes. Throughout the book the reader is waiting to hear the response of her husband, Yonny, to her admission of infidelity and that suspense is kept up until the last page of the book.

The book is entirely written through the eyes, thoughts and delusions of the protagonist, and contains numerous psychological insights. At first, the reader is encouraged to think that Ya'ara is merely displaying what could be regarded as an excessive “feminine” perspective on the people and the world, but as the novel progress we begin to realise that she is mentally unbalanced and has at least partially lost her grip on reality.

While engaging, the book is not always written in an easily accessible style. Long paragraphs of poetic, but deluded, introspection can be difficult to plough through. Moreover, the book shuns the conventions of direct speech altogether, and relies on inserting conversation into the body of paragraphs.

Despite these possible shortcomings, the book is powerful and engaging. It engraves on the memory of the reader the personality and outlook of one particular young woman.

SHALEV, Zeruya, Love Life, Cannongate 2002