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.

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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.

UKIP: Why it’s the beginning of the end for the single issue party which thrived on personality politics | Liam O’Dell

After UKIP’s National Executive Committee’s vote of no confidence in his leadership today, leader Henry Bolton was right: “the party is probably over”, and here’s why.

Photo: Derek Bennet/Flickr.

It was a bitter stalemate for a party which rose to success of the back of personality politics before it was ‘cool’. With a couple of resignations recently during Bolton’s time as UKIP leader, who knows if any more could follow should the former police officer manage to hold on to his position. No matter what happens now (whether Bolton resigns or members vote him out), a replacement is on the horizon in what would be an election for the fifth UKIP leader in the space of 18 months. When one considers June 2017’s snap election in amongst all these contests, could so-called ‘voter fatigue’ take its toll and finally bring an end to the UK Independence Party?

When Nigel Farage announced his resignation as leader after the 2016 EU referendum, numerous media outlets and commentators said such a decision had created a ‘power vacuum’. Now, three leaders later and it seems as though such a vacuum at the heart of the party is yet to be filled – for one good reason.

Whilst the media circus hasn’t bothered to explore the specific details of the in-fighting in UKIP (or, arguably, such details haven’t come to light), it seems as though the party longs for Farage’s return. Putting the politician’s popularity within the party aside, it was Nigel Farage that created the image of UKIP. Throughout the referendum campaign, journalists mentioned how leaving the European Union was an issue for which Farage had campaigned for many years. There’s a reason why US President Donald Trump has described the politician as ‘Mr Brexit’ – it’s because, even before the referendum was called, Brexit has been seen as ‘his baby’.

Since Farage’s departure as leader, the Conservatives – tasked with delivering Brexit – has soaked up the slogans and obsession that UKIP left out in the open during the power vacuum. The Tory claims about Labour MPs going against ‘the will of the people’ during the EU Withdrawal Bill debate is a type of whinging and complaining one would expect from UKIP, if they had becoming the strong ‘pro-Brexit voice’ the party has said they want to be.

However, with no MPs in Parliament, it’s a bit hard to be that voice when there’s no representation in the House of Commons, and the Conservatives are the only right-wing party pushing for a successful Brexit and have the responsibility and power to do so. Why should members support a ‘pro-Brexit voice’ outside of Westminster and add a further degree of separation when they can call on the Prime Minister (or, even their local constituency MP if they’re a Tory) to take direct action?

Granted, the fact that the UK still hasn’t left the EU yet may warrant such a voice in the debate, but the fact that UKIP are still the United Kingdom Independence Party following such a vote is baffling. An attempt to refresh the party with a new logo – despite it leading to some issues with the Premier League – may indeed have been a welcome move in terms of pushing the party forward post-Brexit, but it still grounded them to a single political issue.

In order to survive, UKIP must find a bold and likeable personality to fill the Farage-shaped hole in their party, and branch out from one single issue. Yet, with reports that the ex-leader may set up his own pro-Brexit party, the former seems unlikely. As for the latter, UKIP would have to go to the drawing board to think of national policies – besides Brexit – for which to campaign on. At a time of problematic leadership and in-fighting, it seems unlikely that the party would be able to agree on much as members’ patience runs thin.

With another leadership contest looming, this is the beginning of the end for UKIP.

UN’s ‘human catastrophe’ verdict is the latest dent to the Tories’ disability rights record | The Friday Article

How a Conservative government can even begin to dispute the damning report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) this week beats me. After numerous disability organisations complained to the UN about the Tories’ treatment of disabled people, the Chair of the UNCRPD, Theresia Degener described it as a ‘human catastrophe’.

Photo: Pixabay.

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between £2,000 and £3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognised as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” said Degener, as quoted in an article by the Mirror.

Yet, when one looks at the government’s response to the comments, a spokeswoman said it ‘fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives’, before going on to mention statistics such as them spending ‘over £50 billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions’, that they’re a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, and that ‘almost 600,000 disabled people have moved into work in the UK over the last four years’.

It is a response which can be picked apart in a rather hilarious fashion, even when the data appears positive. With regards to the 600,000 disabled people in work since 2013, they fail to mention the recent news that the disability employment gap has remained stagnant at over 30% since 1998, despite launching a commitment to halve the gap in ten years.

As for being a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, one does not need to showcase the biggest disability news stories of the past decade to show that this is completely laughable. A UN inquiry last November had some harsh words for the Conservatives, a disabled student took the government to court in 2015 due to it failing to consult with disabled people over changes to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), and without a doubt one of the most appalling statistics which seems to suggest otherwise is that 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 because they were declared ‘fit for work’ after claiming for Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

The Tories ignoring yet another damning report on their disability rights record would not only show a disregard for any public scrutiny, but it would only prove the lack of consideration for one of the most marginalised groups in our society.

It’s why, as always, we must support charities in holding the government to account and demanding change. Granted, saying that we need to continue campaigning is a typical call-to-action when it comes to these sort of social issues, but applying pressure on MPs around disability issues has worked wonders before. Aside from the DSA example mentioned above, the British Deaf Association (BDA) has pushed tirelessly for British Sign Language to be given legal status, and after the UN’s latest verdict, it seems as though that is getting closer to becoming a reality.

“We were impressed with the openness of the committee to listen to our evidence and apply their significant legal experience,” said Dr Terry Riley OBE, Chairman of the BDA. “Therefore we are glad to see that the committee has expressly recommended that the UK government finally legislate to protect language rights of deaf people, and that so many of the committee’s remarks related to this. Deaf people have been passed over too long; there can now be no doubt that the government has been taken to task. Without language rights, we have no human rights.”

There are 13.3 million people in the UK. Whether or not the Government will choose to listen to such a large group of people is another matter for debate (this article suggests that for many years, they haven’t), but now more than ever we must support the charities that are giving a voice to a community which is being unfairly targeted – especially when they claim they are being ‘gagged’ by the Lobbying Act 2014.

The incredible young voter turnout in the recent snap election has shown the Conservative government what can happen when they continue to target a specific group of people in our society. Now, they’ve tried desperately to win back students from Corbynism with a right-wing ‘ideas festival’ and most recently, a grassroots movement called Activate which some people have called ‘the Tory Momentum’.

It’s time for disabled people to do the same, and shock the Conservative Party into making long overdue changes to improve our lives for the better.

‘The Tory Glastonbury’: The Conservatives’ hilarious attempt at winning back the youth vote | The Friday Article

“Why is it just the left who have all the fun in politics?” whined Conservative MP George Freeman to the Financial Times last week. The politician, who represents the Mid Norfolk constituency, made headlines after he unveiled his plan for a right-wing ‘ideas festival’ to build up grassroots support – something which has rightly been dubbed ‘The Tory Glastonbury’.

Pyramid Stage with sunset
George Freeman’s plan for a right-wing festival has been dubbed as ‘The Tory Glastonbury’ by some commentators.

Labour supporters are already having a ball imagining what the Tory version of the internationally renowned music festival would look like. A giddy Boris Johnson walks onto the main stage as the Saturday headliner, juggling flaming torches to the tune of Shaggy’s 1995 hit, Bombastic to the crowd’s amusement. Arcadia, Worthy Farm’s fire-breathing spider, is replaced by a pissed off pig, and over at the politics tent Jeremy Hunt is giving a talk on how to dismantle the NHS. Attendees would be spoilt for choice until they realise that there isn’t anyone likeable left in the party to play the popular Sunday legends slot.

Then there’s the music that would be on offer. The Tories’ inaccurate perception of young people will probably lead to old 90s disco tracks being blasted around the festival site, in an attempt to ‘get down with the kids’. It’s a move which would be as disastrous as asking your grandma to buy a Kanye West album from HMV.

This whole idea is the latest way in which the Conservatives plan to ride off the success of Labour in June’s general election. As if asking your political opponents for policy ideas wasn’t embarrassing enough, setting up a festival because you’re jealous of the ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chants once again shows the desperation and panic that has taken over the Conservative Party. Such an event will do little to combat the wave of Corbynism present in our young people, and the party’s backing in other age groups is faltering. Is the idea of a ‘Tory Glastonbury’ their way of finally acknowledging the power of millennials in general elections?

Perhaps not. If this really is an attempt by the Tories to win back some of the youth vote, then the fact that the one-day festival is rumoured to take place in September shows how nonsensical, fantasist and flawed the whole idea is. Student voters will be back at university and the Tories’ next best bet would be to hold a Freshers Tour – which would be quite fitting given the Etonian background of some of the party’s key figures.

George Osborne DJ set at Cambridge uni, anyone?

As Lib Dem leader, Cable’s coalition past is in the spotlight – he must tackle it head on | The Friday Article

As Labour and the Tories veered off to the far edges of the political spectrum, the Liberal Democrats were the middle ground for the electorate. Led by a young politician with no coalition backstory, simply a vision of an ‘open, tolerant and united’ Britain, those wary of Corbynism but frustrated with austerity backed Tim Farron’s movement. Whilst the growth in the party’s number of MPs was minimal, faith was slowly but surely returning to the Lib Dems. Yet now, the election of Vince Cable as Farron’s replacement could undo the so-called ‘Lib Dem fightback’.

Tim Farron slowly won back faith in the Liberal Democrats. The election of Vince Cable (pictured) threatens to undo that process. Photo: Liberal Democrats/Flickr.

It seems as though the Liberal Democrats could learn a few things from Corbyn when it comes to vanquishing your party’s haunted past. The allotment fanatic was able to drive out Blairism in a Labour that was stuck to the right of the political spectrum. Granted, a public apology was given by Nick Clegg for the mistakes of the coalition, but the fact that the video is remembered more for its catchy parody than the original, shows just how seriously everybody took the message.

So, aside from the fact Cable was elected with no opposition (we can save the debate about how democratic this is for another day), the electorate – and certainly young people – have not forgotten the tuition fee u-turn and countless other controversial decisions made between 2010 and 2015. In the recent election, the Liberal Democrats had the added bonus of ‘the progressive alliance’ on their side. Now, the subsequent assumption that the party will return to flirting with right-wing policies could not come at a worse time, when there is a need for centrist politics.

It would be wrong to assume that all young people were swept under the wave of socialism brought about by Jeremy Corbyn. However, Farron’s Liberal Democrats allowed some of them to back the party when tactical voting allowed that to happen. With promises of a second Brexit referendum on the final deal and the 1p income tax plan for the NHS, the appealing policies meant the party was a back-up plan for young people unable to back Labour. However indirect, the ‘progressive alliance’ or ‘anything but the Tories’ operation led to young adults putting their cross in the box for the Liberal Democrats. A realist would argue that it was a ‘last resort’ option, but an optimist would have  you believe that a sense of trust or faith was starting to develop in the minds of young people, despite the calamitous decision to break their promise on student fees.

However much it shouldn’t be, emotion-led politics means personality has a big part to play in today’s votes. As the coalition minister responsible for the privatisation of Royal Mail, the haunted past of the Liberal Democrats has been shoved back into the spotlight following Cable’s election. If the Lib Dems are to continue the laborious process of winning back young people’s trust in the Lib Dems (led by Farron), then a leader who is willing to adapt and tackle the issue head on could be the answer.