People’s Vote: A final say on the Brexit deal risks the revival of misinformation politics | Liam O’Dell

Expecting the electorate to vote on a Brexit deal they haven’t read is the type of blind faith and naïvety which was easily exploited in 2016.

Most of the general public didn’t look at this week’s draft withdrawal agreement in full. A total of 585 pages in length, it fell on journalists and politicians, each with their own conscious or unconscious bias, to summarise the entire document and inform the British people. The same will happen with the final deal, and if a People’s Vote is granted, it’ll be yet another referendum led by soundbites and manipulation.

Photo: David Holt/Flickr.

It is this, alongside the fact that the vote will most definitely include a ‘remain’ option, which allows for the ‘final say’ project to be easily dismissed as a “loser’s vote” or a re-run of the first referendum. If it does indeed come to fruition, it would not only be met with contempt by Brexiteers, but it would further fuel disillusionment and a hatred of the establishment and public institutions. Misinformation’s revival would put fake news and manipulation back on the agenda, and the tireless work of journalists using investigative reporting to win back public trust in a post-truth climate will be undone.

This wouldn’t be the only detrimental backtrack to occur if a people’s vote was granted. It would also involve significant u-turns from the Conservative government – both on its stance on a people’s vote and going back to the public for a second time. The first decision will damage the party’s reputation amongst Brexiteers, whilst the second will most likely infuriate some SNP politicians who have consistently faced opposition to calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland. Such a decision would be unlikely for a unionist party, and would only lead to an increase in support for the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Not only that, but the Tories’ decision to allow the public to have the final say would also come with a sense of concession from Theresa May (if indeed, she is still negotiating in this hypothetical scenario) that her deal may not be the best option. Whether such a sentiment is explicitly stated, or simply implied, it’s a decision which would harm the case for the public to vote for her deal should that be on the ballot paper. As such, even if there were three choices on the ballot (a ‘no deal Brexit’, May’s deal, or remain), it could still appear to be a remain-leave referendum if it’s deemed that May no longer has confidence in her own deal by calling a people’s vote.

I do, however, think that this would be unlikely, and the government would still urge the public to back her arrangements. In which case, consider this: what’s not to say that they might send out leaflets to households similar to the ones they sent in 2016? Granted, this may be where the Electoral Commission steps in, but could UK households receive a summary of the deal from the Prime Minister, and if so, what would the implications of this be?

While all of this is, of course, hypothetical, if the People’s Vote campaign wishes to win over more leavers and remainers, it must be seen as offering the single, logical solution which is optimistic and would not create further division. This would also involve setting down the foundations for a fair and honest referendum, free from sensationalist language and misleading information.

Unfortunately, those behind the campaign are yet to acknowledge the full scale of misinformation and post-truth in our political processes. In their reportA Roadmap to a People’s Vote, the group say “there is a strong democratic case for much better regulation and transparency in political advertising on the internet, or even going further”, calling for social media companies to be “challenged to show that they are taking all actions within their power to prevent abuse” with the threat of tough new legislation if they don’t. It’s a promising step, but one which completely ignores the other, wider issues which tie into the misinformation machine. If a referendum on the final deal were to see the creation of official campaigns, their activities must be closely monitored for accuracy and fairness.

Yet, in amongst all of this, they recognise that “there may not be time for legislation” around online political advertising. When one considers the fact that there wouldn’t be enough time to call another referendum before the Brexit deadline of 29 March next year, both the plausibility of a people’s vote and its repercussions are called into question.

To truly learn from the lessons of 2016, adequate safeguards and provisions preventing the revival of misinformation in our political discourse must be put in place during a people’s vote. Without these assurances, the campaign will continue to be branded a re-run of the first referendum, and will fail to win over the support from Brexiteers which it so desperately needs.

Liam O’Dell is a freelance journalist and blogger.

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No, Twitter does not need an edit button – and here’s why | Liam O’Dell

Adding the ability to edit tweets would not only be impractical, but would open the floodgates to further abuse of the platform.

“Sexy edit button” were the three words Twitter used today to say that it is terrified of the edit button.

While slightly unconventional, the tweet – which was in response to a post from voiceover artist and writer Summer Ray – finally provided some acknowledgement from the platform that they are aware of the repeated calls for the function. Twitter think it’s a bad idea – and they’re right.

Supporters of the introduction of the new button may well cite Facebook’s ‘edit history’ feature as an example of this setting being successful, but it is far from it. Clicking ‘view edit history’ is the only way in which we can find out if a post has been altered, and even then, we’re unlikely to click it and interrupt our automatic and robotic scrolling of our News Feed.

Transfer this over to Twitter, where a chronological algorithm makes things feel a lot more instantaneous, and the chances of us noticing that a tweet has been edited are even smaller. Even if a sign was added to suggest that it has, it would have to fight for space in a rectangle which is already populated by countless icons and pieces of information. People just wouldn’t be bothered.

The main argument for editing tweets is on the issue of spelling mistakes, where having the ability to edit out a rogue comma or a misspelling could prove useful. Indeed, while we have all fallen victim to the occasional grammatical error, how would such an edit function be enforced?

Even when one considers the detailed coding required, what would happen to a tweet when it’s edited? If it remains in situ, in its original place in the timeline, then what’s the point? The edit remains unacknowledged unless the scroller happened to retweet it onto their account. On the other hand, boosting edited tweets to the top of the timeline would be an algorithmic nightmare.

So the alternative is to leave it buried, drowned out by all the other tweets which populate our busy timelines. This is where it becomes dangerous.

Those who make the point about the feature potentially being exploited refer to how we could retweet a tweet with a statement we agree with, only to find it’s been changed to something abhorrent later. Even when we put a disclaimer in our bios saying that sharing other tweets do not imply endorsement, the association and connection is still there.

So some have suggested a character limit to prevent misuse. After all, character limits and the need to be succinct was at the heart of Twitter until it doubled its trademark 140-character count. Yet, where would such a limit end? One or two characters would be enough for a punctuation error, but may not be enough for autocorrect’s many failures. On the other hand, increasing it to account for bigger mistakes makes it easier for someone to type ‘arse’ or something far more hateful and vitriolic.

When you consider what this ‘perfect limit’ is, and how one even begins to design and implement an edit button, you start to realise that it’s probably easier to just delete and try again.

Scrap the ‘Festival of Brexit Britain’, the UK has had enough of political festivals | Liam O’Dell

Theresa May’s plans for a festival to celebrate the best of post-Brexit Britain in 2022 comes at a time when the public want big ideas, not political conferences.

It’s an idea which draws up images of exaggerated patriotism. The Prime Minister’s ‘Festival for Brexit Britain’ aims to “celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent and mark this moment of national renewal with a once-in-a-generation celebration”, taking inspiration from the 1851 Great Exhibition and the 1951 post-war carnivals.

Not only is the patriotism archaic, but so is talk of yet another political festival. The British public are proactive, and want something different.

We’ve already seen failed political events in the form of Labour Live or ‘JezFest’. While over 13,000 people attended the festival, it still had to cut ticket prices and run promotional offers to attract an audience. With the exception of party conferences, events run under the banner of a political party fail to engage the public.

Instead, ideas must be allowed to grow in a public space without political framing. As soon as ideas are shoehorned into a political allegiance, then we run the risk of falling into the echo chambers which our society is desperately trying to move away from. Thoughts should be free and presented in an environment where views can be challenged.

Tory MP George Freeman learnt this when it came to his Big Tents Ideas Festival, which had its second year earlier this month. Initially dubbed ‘the Tory Glastonbury’, this year’s event seemed to be more cross-party than Conservative.

“I have made it non-party political so that MPs, peers and others from the centre left can also get involved,” the Mid Norfolk MP told The Guardian. The end result was nearly 2,000 people heading to the event near Cambridge to discuss topics such as artificial intelligence, education and social justice.

If Conservative festivals are to be viewed as desperate attempts at replicating the success of Glastonbury Festival, then it’s worth looking at what makes the biggest UK festival so popular in terms of politics. The answer? It’s left-wing tone is never front-and-centre – ideas and music are.

Alongside the expected £120m price tag, its planned launch in 2022 and all this talk of a “celebration”, the PM also says the ‘Festival for Brexit Britain’ is targeted at a “new generation”.

If it is indeed another push to recruit more young people to the Conservative Party – whether that attempt be outright or more subliminal – then it won’t work. While it does appear to shine a light on British industries, it would still be unable to shake off its ties to the Tories. An opportunity for young people to have their say on post-Brexit life would be far more beneficial and engaging than a glamourised showcase.

The British public are more involved and engaged in politics than ever, and they have ideas for change. If political festivals want to provide an opportunity to discuss ideas, then opinions must be free from political allegiance, challenged and unrestrained.

There’s a worrying domino effect impacting deaf young people’s education – it must be stopped | Liam O’Dell

As MPs debate deaf children’s services in Parliament later today, it’s time to introduce more equality into our education system and address this problem at its core.

A series of continuous barriers in education are preventing deaf young people from achieving their full potential. Without the right support, these issues can only worsen as the individual progresses through the system.

The National Deaf Children’s Society has done some incredible work in establishing the issues present throughout a deaf young person’s journey through the education system. Their research has revealed that councils in England are planning £4 million worth of cuts to services for disabled children and young people; that just nine per cent of deaf young people attended a Russell Group university in the 2015/16 academic year (compared to 17% of all students) and now, that over half of deaf students in England in 2017 failed to achieve more than one A-Level before reading 19 years of age. The exact figure, 58.8%, is the highest rate since 2012, The Independent reports.

All of this points to a wider domino effect at play in our education system which sets deaf young people down a path where they are unable to achieve the results of which they are capable. The cuts to deaf services mean that deaf pupils are not as supported by Teachers of the Deaf and other professionals as they should be.

As such, these individuals fail to receive full access to an education in the classroom, which could explain why we’re currently seeing a rise in the number of deaf young people failing to achieve more than one A-Level. This then impacts their chances of entering Russell Group universities. It shouldn’t be allowed to snowball like this.

While all this unfolds, the Government is making slow progress on introducing a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL) – a qualification which would not only help to break down communication barriers between deaf pupils, their peers and their tutors, but also greatly improve their access to education.

Education is as much about support networks as it is learning. These cuts should not only be stopped, but more work must be done to establish connections between parents, students and teachers.

Having on individual who can understand a child’s needs in an educational environment can help a lot with navigating through education. At present, the cuts to deaf services are so significant that while I received support from a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator, not every deaf child is so lucky.

With so many barriers facing deaf children in education, it can feel isolating and confusing. Transitions between school can only exacerbate the obstacles if strong communication networks are established. We must not only challenge the damaging cuts proposed, but work to improve connections so deaf children are supported as much as possible.

If Facebook wants to be completely transparent, then its time for them to reveal their algorithm | Liam O’Dell

With the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee calling for more transparency around the business models used by social media platforms such as Facebook, the rise of data politics means that the algorithms can no longer be kept a secret.

It’s a system so mysterious that it’s become a game to content creators and data miners – a series of hoops to jump through that can get them to the audience they want. Crack the algorithm, and you crack a system which is, in essence, the hive mind of those which use said platform. Cambridge Analytica have shown that it can be done, which is why it’s time that the inner workings of social media sites are revealed to the public.

Photo: Anthony Quintano/Flickr.

This level of transparency was also called for by a report by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee (DCMSC), along with a new definition for social media websites which are “not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher'”.

There has been ongoing talk about Facebook’s precise role in the tech and media industries, and whether it is indeed a ‘publisher’. Yet, as the DCMSC notes: “Facebook is continually altering what we see, as is shown by its decision to prioritise content from friends and family, which then feeds into users’ newsfeed algorithm.”

More importantly, it’s time for social media platforms to fully disclose what exactly their algorithm is. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that this is a serious ethical issue. It’s essential that something so impactful and manipulative is out in the open, so the public knows just how they are being influenced.

Recently, Channel 4’s Dispatches investigated how Facebook moderates content on its platform, and questions are being asked about what sort of content the site decides not to take down. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, told the DCMSC that “our community would not want us, a private company, to be the arbiter of truth”, yet their systems display content in a particular way, and they still have to make decisions about what content they do not allow on their platform.

In turn, social media sites may claim that publishing extensive details about their algorithms may harm their company when it comes to competition, but this issue covers freedom of expression and democracy – two things which cannot continue to be sacrificed for protecting ‘trade secrets’.

Granted, knowing how such a system works may be a gold mine for those who seek to exploit it (clickbaiters, data miners and so forth), but when the general public know how a system can be cheated, they can also know how others can use it for monetary gain. Those who publish fake news will be faced with a fresh wave of scepticism when people know the tactics that they use.

If Facebook doesn’t want to be seen as an “arbiter of truth”, then the solution is simple: make the algorithm more transparent, and then the people can decide the truth for themselves.

Trump’s UK visit cannot be ignored | Liam O’Dell

Just like you shouldn’t fight fire with fire, you can’t defeat bigotry with ignorance.

The comments on the official Facebook page for protesting Trump’s UK visit makes for interesting reading. In amongst the comments opposing Donald’s presidency are a few suggesting a different reaction to POTUS’s arrival, which is to simply ignore him.

Donald Trump
First people wanted Trump’s UK visit to be revoked outright, now they’re suggesting we ignore him completely. Both are the wrong approach. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.

This is particularly interesting when one considers the response to the news already. When May made the extremely premature offer to Trump just a few months after he was elected, petitions were launched calling for the invitation to be revoked. It hasn’t, and rightly so. At a time where people voice concerns over speakers being censored on university campuses (a place people say is the centre for debate, critical analysis and discussion), it would be incredibly hypocritical for us to take the stance of banning him outright, rather than allowing him to visit the UK to be met with opposition. The former shows ignorance and hostility, the latter sees a fair and decent approach to differing opinions which we need to see in our society.

Now that that option is off the table, the next idea seems to be simply ignoring the fact that the so-called ‘leader of the free world’ is visiting the UK – something which is not only completely impossible, but has failed to get the President’s attention in the past.

Those holding this opinion most likely believe that for a man who came from the world of reality television, not getting the attention of a large audience is the most irritating thing to happen to Trump. Quite possibly, but in all the times that the leader has unleashed anger and frustration in less than 280 characters, it has been with regards to more public acts of defiance. Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and others have all succeeded in getting the President riled through high-profile political messages, not members of the public who have decided to not pay attention when Trump is in their country on a visit.

Donald’s affinity for Fox and Friends and extensive rants on Twitter paint the picture of a man who is, primarily, a man who prefers visual, easily understandable information – something which both platforms provide.

This brings me to the planned protests on Friday, 13 July. When images surfaced of the crowd size for Trump’s inauguration, the 45th President didn’t take the news too well. Some might argue that protesting may lead to further unnecessary hostility or Trump seeing it as a positive, but if enough people protest, and it makes the news, he’ll realise that all the attention is for all the wrong reasons.

Not only that, but the right to protest is an essential part of British democracy, and would be a welcome return to a peaceful and civilised approach to public discourse around socio-political issues. As one of the organisers, columnist Owen Jones wrote on the Facebook event: “We’re not just protesting against Trump, we’re protesting against Trumpism, including in our own country: where minorities are blamed for the injustices caused by the powerful.”

People thinking of ignoring Trump fail to realise the bigger issue here and to separate personalities from politics. As Owen says, the protest will also take a stand against Trumpism. Ignoring the president when he visits could very well be the right response when it comes to an individual with such an ego, but we must remember to protest what he stands for – something which cannot be ignored, no matter what.

By not paying attention to Trump, we would also reveal the polar opposite of the hostile political debate which we see in our society. While anonymous Twitter users fire hate and personal attacks at politicians and commentators online instead of criticising the issue itself, a new idea has emerged where outright refusing to acknowledge or challenge political ideas is considered the best approach. It is not, and such an idea must be tackled before it finds itself nestled in our political discourse.

In today’s climate, we must strike the middle ground which is devoid of ad hominem remarks or plain ignorance. A return to passionate but civilised discussions on the topic at hand is needed now more than ever.

What ‘The Silent Child’s Oscar nomination means for the Deaf community | Liam O’Dell

It was a few days before the Oscar nominations were announced that I found out about The Silent Child. In a BBC News interview, six-year-old Maisie Sly talked about her hopes for a nomination for the movie, which also stars Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton.

Photo: Davidlohr Bueso/Flickr (changes have been made).

In a section of the film’s official website, the plot is described as centring around “a profoundly deaf four year old girl named Libby who is born into a middle class family and lives in a world of silence until a caring social worker teaches her the gift of communication.” Whilst I am yet to see The Silent Child itself, simply put, the film seems to be about the beauty of British Sign Language (BSL) – and that’s a wonderful thing.

With Shenton, who has worked closely with the National Deaf Children’s Society in the past, as the film’s writer, there’s no denying that the passion is present in the script and Chris Overton’s direction. As The Silent Child centres around family life as a deaf person in addition to BSL, it certainly shines a light onto Deaf culture, the Deaf community and our language.

As such, this is why an Oscar nomination is so important to not only the filmmakers, but every member of the subculture which The Silent Child represents. Even a nomination has the power to prompt film fans to seek out the movie, which means more people seeing a story centring around an important subject.

It has the potential to inspire more people to break down the language barrier and BSL, or at least encourage viewers to find out more about life as a deaf person. At the very least, a viewer’s misconceptions are challenged. At best, they see the power of connecting over a language, and seek to learn even basic sign language in order to communicate with any deaf people they know.

On top of all this is the representation aspect. Slowly but surely, more deaf people and deaf-related stories are gaining prominence in the media. From Nyle DiMarco’s success and Switched from Birth in the US, to the great work See Hear and the BSL Scotland Act have led to in the UK, deaf issues are getting the attention they rightfully deserve.

Also, let’s not forget that Maisie is profoundly deaf herself – a detail incredibly important in a film and TV industry which seems to cast non-disabled people, neurotypical people or those without the specific condition in the role. Members of the deaf community have called for deaf actors in deaf roles, and this Oscar nomination serves as recognition that such an initiative really improves the accuracy and quality of a film. The Silent Child‘s success is a small but massively positive step for representation – both in terms of the actual story and the issues it explores, and casting decisions.

Now comes the big ceremony in March, and I wish The Silent Child every success.