In an initiative driven by party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has launched a new Social Media Policy document – and it’s one which will be studied eagerly by members who have seen supposed ‘abuse’ weaponised against the Left by Tories, the Labour right and their media supporters when most abuse seems to come from those very quarters.
It’s a document of two distinct halves. One seeks to establish the principles by which Labour members and supporters should seek to conduct their social media interactions – and it’s difficult to find too much to disagree with:
In fact, this blog considers it likely that most members will agree with its assessment that the influence of the Labour leader and his team can be seen very clearly in these principles.
Slightly less free of difficulty is the ‘National Executive Committee statement’ section. There is little to object to in statements such as:
A starting point for all our actions as members of a party and a movement is to treat all people with dignity and respect. This applies to all our dealings with people, offline and online.
Everyone should feel able to take part in discussion about our party, country and world. We want to maximise this debate, including critical discussion, as long as it does not result in the exclusion of others.
Harassment, intimidation, hateful language and bullying are never acceptable, nor is any form of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
However, where it deals with enforcement and discipline the document is more problematic:
Any member found in breach of the above policies will be dealt with according to the rules and procedures of the Labour Party.
There are at least three reasons for this.
Firstly, the word ‘any’ above will be welcomed by left-wing members but regarded with extreme suspicion. There is an absolute conviction among many members that over the almost two years since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, his supporters have been penalised for the most trivial reasons – but his opponents have been able to say whatever they wish with impunity.
That includes many ‘moderate'(!) MPs, with even the party’s deputy leader referring to pro-Corbyn members as ‘rabble’, ‘Trots’ and ‘entryists’, with ‘dogs’ and worse used unpunished by others.
If this policy is to be embraced as meaningful, it is essential that it is applied sensibly and, most of all, fairly, with right-wing abuse (far more common in spite of the media’s attempts to portray otherwise) disciplined as strictly as anything from the Left.
Secondly, the policy does not give any definition of ‘abuse’ (or of ‘trolling’) . Given the undoubted tendency of some right-wingers, safe – up to now – in the knowledge that their own actions were immune to censure by a largely right-leaning bureaucracy, to provoke, for example via the above-mentioned and certainly abusive ‘dogs’, ‘rabble‘ and worse in the hope of eliciting an angry reaction, clear guidance on what is or is not abuse is highly important.
The pattern of provocation-reaction-accusation was illustrated with wonderful succinctness last week by one Twitter user:
There will be nods of recognition by most SKWAWKBOX readers at this pithy encapsulation of the problems both of fairness and clarity described above.
The final and even more crucial question is this: how is the party going to enforce the rules and identify breaches?
Recent guidance issued by General Secretary Iain McNicol, revealed exclusively by the SKWAWKBOX, informed party staff that trawling members’ social media for disciplinary purposes constitutes a breach of the Data Protection Act (DPA), as indeed it does.
That being so, how is the party going to legally know what members are saying, let alone judge whether it constitutes abuse?
By its very definition, the ‘Social Media Policy’ covers online behaviour. Equally by definition, that means any abuse or alleged abuse is going to be in the very social media feeds that party staff and officers cannot ‘trawl’ without either breaching the DPA or obtaining the specific permission of each member to use her/his social media posts for the disciplinary purposes.
In other words, each member would have to say ‘Ok, you can use my social media to potentially suspend or expel me’.
The SKWAWKBOX has asked Labour’s HQ for clarification of how it envisages enforcing the rules and principles contained in the new policy, but no answer has been provided so far.
Welcome as the new policy initiative will be to the vast majority, for the peace of mind of members still twitchy about the perceived abuse of social media in the purges associated with the 2015 and 2016 leadership contests, that answer is absolutely essential.