The climate emergency and the UK election

I was a bit late to the party in following the rise of Greta Thunberg. In August 2018 she began her activism by spending school days outside the Swedish parliament holding up a sign saying (in Swedish) “School strike for the climate.” This movement soon spread with high school strikes and protests happening throughout the world opposing climate change.

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Greta Thunberg protesting for action on climate change. 

It’s strange that media and social media create phenomena like Greta, whose name has now become synonymous for the single biggest issue facing the planet. I admire Greta, and all climate activists who have stood up and demanded that action be taken to stop the impending climate catastrophe.

But Greta was far from the first person to warn of the climate crisis and the need to take action. In 1989, then Prime Minister of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher made what I believe was one of the finest speeches of her political career to the UN general assembly. Thatcher, a Conservative Prime Minister, is far from everyone’s favourite political leader. And there are plenty of criticisms that can be made of her time in office. But on this crucial issue Thatcher acted as a real leader. She highlighted what she called the “credible” scientific evidence of environmental problems caused by the release of green house gasses, and proposed global action to counter this.

Thatcher was someone who rarely shied away from an argument. Former UK Labour Party back bencher Austin Mitchell in his book Revenge of the Rich describes this.  Austin claims when hey wrote to Thatcher as a backbench MP, she would always respond, usually with 1 page justifying her government policy and 2 further pages explaining why the opposition position was wrong. Thatcher was Britains first woman prime minister and the longest serving UK PM in the 20th century. While a very polarising figure, she was a leader, and one who would stand up for what she believed in.

This is in stark contrast to the actions of current Conservative PM Boris Johnson. Last week channel 4 hosted the worlds first leaders debate on climate. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage refused to attend this debate. Channel 4 responded by displaying ice sculptures on the podium where these two men should have been standing. The Tories have complained to the UK media watch dog that displaying these ice sculptures was media bias, a complaint that has been rejected by that body. The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to life on our planet, and as Prime Minister Boris Johnson should have fronted this debate. By failing to do so, he has shown himself to be a weak and feeble leader. By not engaging on the critical issue of climate change, Boris Johnson has shown not only UK electors, but the world that he is a fool.

An ice sculpture is put in place for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the studio at the Channel 4 News debate.
The melting ice sculpture on the podium where Boris Johnson should have been during the Channel 4 climate debate.

The increased occurrence of extreme weather patterns, like the flooding in the north of England a month ago are becoming more common. The slow and disinterested response from the current government is consistent with not attending the climate debate. Internationally we have seen climate change deniers like Donald Trump come to power. There are also a number of governments around the world who pay lip service to the climate emergency but continue to take little action. Unless this changes very quickly, it may be too late to stop the climate crisis. 

In an earlier blog post I mentioned the increased number of young people enrolling to vote in the 2019 election. Climate change is a massive issue for young voters, who are very aware that during their lifetimes the impacts of the climate crisis will hit. Globally we have seen youth leaders like Greta Thunberg stand up and demand action. It’s time the world listened to these young leaders, and Margaret Thatcher’s UN address back in 1989, and take real action to prevent a climate crisis. 

Scotland – does independence loom?

Scotland matters in the 2019 UK general election. Yet much of the electorate have little understanding of the place, it’s politics or what could happen after the December 12 election. Scotland could well decide the outcome of the 2019 UK Election. It did in 2017.

At the last election fierce electoral competition between Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) split the vote and allowed 13 Conservative MPs to win Scottish Constituencies. In the 2015 election the Tories only won 1 constituency in Scotland.  Without these 13 Scottish Tories, Theresa May would not have been able to form government in 2017.

After Boris was elected leader of the Conservative Party in July 2019, Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson announced she was standing down from parliament. It was clear that Ruth, and many others in the Scottish Conservatives did not like the direction Boris Johnson would take the Party and the country. Many now believe the Tories will face political annihilation in Scotland on December 12th. If this comes to pass, the Conservatives will need to win 13 other new constituencies to the south just to maintain their current numbers, and many more than that to get the majority the Conservatives seek in this election.

So what is at play in Scotland?

In 2014 a referendum was held in Scotland, asking the Scots if they wanted to become an independent state rather that stay part of the United Kingdom. Scotland voted to stay in the UK with 55% voting No to independence and 44% voting Yes. Case closed, Scotland voted to stay. So thats it right?

Nope.

June 2016, the UK holds a referendum on membership of the European Union. We all know how that referendum result went, 52% voted to leave and 48 voted to remain. Not so in Scotland. In June 2016 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU, compared with 38% who voted for Brexit.

In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, membership of the EU was a significant factor in many Scots voting to stay in the UK. Early on in 2014 then President of the European Union Manuel Barroso said with would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to get the necessary approval from the member states for it to join the European Union (EU).

After the 2016 Brexit result, the SNP wasted no time pointing out that when Scots voted to stay in the UK in 2014, they did so thinking they would be remain a member of the EU. Now that the UK has voted to leave, the SNP claim a second referendum on Scottish independence is now needed.

Since 2007 the SNP have been in government in Scotland. During this period the SNP have actively pushed the independence agenda. While 2014 referendum result was a set back for them, overall the SNP has performed well electorally and built support for Scottish independence.

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Pro Scottish independence rally 2014

For all that Boris Johnson, and many others in the Westminster establishment may whinge that Scotland has already had a referendum, the objective fact is that things have changed since 2014. Scotland wanted to remain in the EU, and now is being taken out against its will. Since the Brexit referendum the European Union has now indicated that they would now be much more open to an independent Scotland joining the EU. So in 2014 if you were Scottish and wanted to stay in the EU, your best bet was to vote No to Scottish independence. In 2019, Scottish independence now offers Scots a way to stay in the EU if the rest of Britain leaves.

Orangemen march through the streets of Edinburgh during a
The Orange Lodge (usually associated with Northern Ireland Protestants) March against Scottish independence in Edinburgh in 2014

Labour initially opposed another referendum, but has more recently softened their position saying they would respect a vote of Scots to leave the UK. In turn SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said her party would back a Labour Government if they agreed to a second referendum. Nicola would like an independence referendum within a year of forming government. Whereas Jeremy Corbyn has indicated he’d like such a referendum, if it were to happen at all, to occur after the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2021.

The Conservatives in the 2019 election have been saying that electing a Labour government would put at risk the Union of Great Britain.

First point: there is no guarantee a second Scottish referendum would result in Scotland voting to leave the UK.

Second point: if the Conservatives win the coming election, the SNP who are in government in Scotland, could still call an independence referendum. In October 2017 the Catalonia state government in Spain called a referendum on Catalonian independence, and 90% of those that voted supported independence. The Spanish government didn’t recognise the referendum and civil unrest and political instability ensued. The SNP have already indicated they would consider holding a similar referendum, even if not recognised by Westminster after Britain leaves the EU.

Forcing Scots to stay part of the UK against their will would do nothing to “defend the precious union” as Boris Johnson waxes lyrical about on the campaign trail. Many in the UK may not want Scottish independence to happen. But it needs to be accepted that the situation has changed significantly since 2014. If people in Scotland don’t want to be part of Brexit Britain, then this needs to be democratically tested and the result respected.

Whatever happens in next weeks general election – the issue of Scottish independence is not going to go away.

 

Youth and the aspirational centre

One of the cliche’s you hear from those active in politics over the last 30 years is that “you have to win the centre”. What is this centre? Presumably the people who float between the political left and the political right in the construct that is western parliamentary democracy. But what does this mean?

The reality is the concept of this centre has always been a bit of nonsense by those who want to simplify politics down to very basic groupings of voters. The theory is that there are those on the left and those on the right. Then there are these centrist voters who swing between left and right and they decide the election. In the UK context where there is a First Past the Post electoral system, this means that elections are won or lost on a couple of dozen marginal constituencies, mostly made up of middle class aspirational swing voters.

So who are these centrist voters. It’s generally believed that they are middle class and aspirational voters who seek short term gratification in politics. They maybe enticed by a tax cut here, or a spending promise there. Or maybe they are looking for a slick charismatic leader who looks good in a suit? Whoever this group are, those who’ve been active in politics have been told its existence is real and to believe in it. When media report on elections, they talk about the centre and we are all told this is where things are won or lost.

In 2008 a major financial crisis hit the world economy. In Britain and many other countries this was followed by policies of Austerity where the majority of people took a hit to their standard of living to pay for the foolish and selfish decisions of those in the major financial institutions and governments globally.

In 2017 UK general election, it was predicted that the Conservatives would win by a landslide. Why? Well the polls said so. The polls made various assumptions about turnout and which constituencies were marginal and likely to turn. Also commentators assumed that Labour under Corbyn had moved too far left, and could not win the centre ground and win. All of this commentary and analysis proved to be bullshit.

So what happened? Since 2008 the policies of austerity hit people in the UK hard. Specifically they have hit young people hard. A generation ago, home ownership was achievable for many, now its a pipe dream for all but the privileged few. Tertiary education was free until the late 1990s, when the Blair Labour government introduced tuition fees. Under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition tuition fees in the UK rose to the highest in Europe. 1/3 of all new jobs in the UK since 2010 have been precarious, often on zero hour contracts or insecure in nature. For many under 30s, including university educated and middle class, paying the rent and doing the groceries each month has become a challenge. The middle class swing voter was suppose to be aspirational, generally on an ok income but wanting to do better. For the generation of young people coming through now, life is much harder than it was for their parents generation – and they are rightly pissed off.

Not so surprisingly, when this group of voters were offered austerity or austerity light in the 2015 UK general election, many under 30s stayed at home on polling day. 2 year later, when Labour offered an end to austerity, abolishing tuition fees, increase the minimum wage and investment in public services – young people turned out. What became known as the youth quake, young people enrolled and voted in much higher than usual numbers. As a result, instead of getting their best election result since 1983 the UK Conservatives lost their majority and Labour were only a handful of seats away from government.

Image result for youthquake 2017 election

The journalists and political establishment couldn’t work it out. The centre, the centre – this result makes no sense. The centre wouldn’t vote for a Labour Party thats moved left. And why are young people voting, and voting in ways that differed from older generations. Even within the Labour Party establishment there was shock. The offical Labour Campaign in 2017 was a defensive one aiming to hold onto seats and survive the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who everyone assumed would be gone after the crushing defeat of 2017. Labour MP’s critical of Corbyn were shocked and in many cases not happy to discover that Labour having moved to the left had gained votes. What about the centre? Was everything they learnt studying Political Science at Oxford University a load of bullocks? Surely not?

The campaign by Momentum, the faction set up to defend Corbyn’s leadership and anti austerity polices run their own election campaign in 2017, seperate to Labour Party HQ. This campaign engaged thousands of young voters using social media and running numerous campaign activities across the country. They didn’t get Labour into government, but they got close. Labour’s national vote increased by over 9% – the party’s single biggest gain in any election.

The Conservatives also increased their national share of the vote by 5%. But for them this increase happened mostly in constituencies the party already held, and did so by taking votes off UKIP. Labours increased vote share, in many cases came from new first time voters. The result was so-called un-winnable constituencies like Canterbury or Kensington falling to Labour.

Two years on what has been learnt? Many pollsters assume 2017 was a one off fluke, and again assume turnout for under 30s will be low. The media, political scientists and commentators and senior people in most political parties are assuming that the election will be won by winning centre voters. Although many are adding the the Brexit vs Remain divide into the mix. Record numbers of young people have enrolled to vote, with high profile musician Stormzy allegedly causing a spike in enrolments. This has been reported, but many commentators are ignoring it.

We will find out on December 12th whether young voters turn out in large numbers like 2017, and if they do what impact it will have on the final result. But what is clear is that the old rules of politics can’t be taken for granted. Much as many in the political elite would like politics not to have changed from 25 years ago, it has. Elections are now far more volatile, unpredictable and polarised. And for the generation of younger voters coming through, the old rules do not apply.

 

 

 

Terror attack at London Bridge

On Friday 29 November 2 people were killed and others injured in a terror attack on London Bridge. I live near to this area, and like most in South East London was shaken and upset to learn of this attack. What happened on London Bridge was an outrage and sickening. My heart goes out to the friends and families of the two victims.

Inevitably this horrendous attack has become part of the 2019 UK General Election campaign. After the terror attacks during the 2017 election then Conservative PM Theresa May came under criticism for the Conservative Government cutting police numbers. In 2019 Boris has gone on the attack and blamed Labour for the early release of the terrorist, as the legislations that allowed this to happen was passed under a Labour Government in 2008.

This has been part of a wider strategy by Boris’s campaign to act like they are part of a new government. They are trying to distance themselves from the Conservative’s last decade in office. This becomes difficult when Boris was a senior minister under both Cameron and May. In 2016 when warned about the early release of prisoners Boris said there was no money de-radicalise terrorists in prision.

As PM, Boris may wish to change the direction of the Conservative Party. And yes he can point some of the blame on the previous government. But after 10 years in office, the Conservative Party have had plenty of opportunity to make changes.

Cartoon published in the Guardian 02/12/2019

Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn has blamed the Conservative Governments cuts to public services and Tony Blairs support for the Iraq invasion as being responsible for the London Bridge attack. However the local Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark Neil Coyle, a prominent critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, has come out against. Neil is quoted in the London Evening Standard as saying “it is a fallacy for anyone, including Jeremy Corbyn, to claim this was “set off” by the Iraq War.”

The father of one of those killed on London Bridge has said Boris Johnson is “beyond disgusting” for using his son’s death to promote “vile propaganda.” Victim Jack Merritt, worked in a program aiming to rehabilitate prisoners into the community through education. Jack’s father shared a tweet by academic Ash Sarkar which said: “It’s beyond disgusting that Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and newspapers like the Mail are using Jack Merritt’s death and image to promote an agenda he fought against all his life. He was a passionate believer in rehabilitation and transformative justice, not draconian sentencing.”

With just over a week to go till the UK General Election, polls (which are questionable in reliability) show the race getting tighter. Expect lots of harsh word and dubious tactics. In all this, political operators shouldn’t forget that real people’s lives are impacted by events like terror attacks. Politicians from all sides need to think about their actions before trying to gain political points.

 

 

Immigration: we can’t keep succumbing to fear tactics

Prior to the release of UK Labour’s manifesto, Unite Union General Secretary Len McCluskey come out in the media saying it would be unwise for the party to support extending free movement of migration with Europe. My first question for any trade union leader when they make these sorts of comments is: are you representing the majority view of your union membership? Or have you assumed that as a union leader you can express your personal view without seeking wider endorsement?

I am a Unite Union member, and have been since I moved to the UK in 2017. I can confirm that in that time, rank and file members have not voted to take a position opposing free movement with Europe. In fact Unite as a union with over 1.3 million members have a range of views on topics such as immigration.

In the autumn edition of Unite Works the union paper, there was an article which pointed out that the number of EU migrants working on UK farms had dropped by 10% in 2017 after the Brexit referendum result. The article went onto say that due to labour shortages crops could be “left to rot.” (Farmageddon, Unite Works autumn 2019). McCluskey’s intervention in the general election on this issue seems to contradict the concerns raised in the Unite paper just weeks earlier.

Immigration is a fraught issue. Human being have been moving throughout the history of our species. It is how we have evolved. The idea of the modern nation state is only a few hundred years old, and for most of our species existence on this planet nation states have not existed. Nation borders are often arbitrary and based on historical divisions or conflicts. And we know from even recent history these lines are often moving and evolving.

For all the scaremongering about immigration, there are plenty of economic arguments for letting in migrants. Research from University College London shows that migrants from the European Economic Area contributed 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits between 2001 and 2011.

Yet this isn’t the message we hear from politicians…

Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking point poster making immigration an issue during the 2016 EU referendum. 

The general impression regarding migration is that migrants are a drain on public services and society. In response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, internationally politicians have tended to turn the blame on migrants, rather than on the financial institutions and systems that caused the crash. This has mostly come from those on the political right, though often the left have failed to be strong on this issue. In the 2015 election, then UK Labour Leader Ed Miliband decided the best way to beat UKIP and the Conservatives was to steal their policies. Miliband announced that Labour would support tougher immigration controls, though was opposed by others in the party including now Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott. Unsurprisingly, Miliband lost the 2015 election, making even David Cameron appear a strong competent leader in comparison.

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Mug released by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in 2015. The common retort to this from Labour supporters was “I’m not a mug”

Labour’s immigration policy has moved on since 2015, despite the best efforts of Len McCluskey.

My personal experience as a migrant to the UK from New Zealand is that it isn’t easy. I’m English speaking, university educated, white, male and from a middle class background. I have it way easier than most migrants. Yet there are a number of restrictions on the type of work I can do as well as restrictions on access to public services in the UK. Also the process of getting a UK visa was costly, time consuming and involved jumping through many hoops.

Conversely I know many people in England who would love to immigrate to New Zealand. However if you are over 30, don’t have very specific qualifications or a high income it is incredibly difficult. Logic would suggest that there must be a way to make it easier for English people to move to New Zealand and Australia, and vice versa. The numbers moving between these countries would be comparable.

More broadly, I have moved on from my radical socialist days when I believed all immigration controls should be scrapped. While total free movement of people would be ideal, in the current economic and geo political model it would be impractical. But trying to restrict the movement of people is like trying to control the tide. Humans always have and always will move around the planet. And by and large it is a positive thing. What we need are sensible immigration polices by domestic governments that allow immigration to occur in a sustainable and equitable way. And more importantly, we need strengthened and properly democratic global governance structures to support national governments and allow this to happen.

But most importantly, we can’t be succumbing to fear campaigns about immigration causing a crisis. The economic arguments do not support this. The economic hardships people face in the UK and globally were caused by a financial crisis, the root cause of which is still to be addressed. Continued attacks on migrants for this is at best a distraction, and at worst feeds xenophobia and fear in our communities.

The folly of electoral pacts

One feature of the UK election has been various electoral alliances or deals done. This has mostly occurred around the issue of Brexit.

Early on in the campaign I wrote about Trump’s intervention in the UK election, specifically him calling on The Brexit Party and The Conservatives to do a deal. My view at the time was that the Brexit Party would be better off not doing such a deal, as it would tie their fortunes too closely to the Conservative Government. However, the pressure to not split the leave vote eventually meant The Brexit party did a deal whereby they wouldn’t run candidates in constituencies the Conservatives currently hold. The assumption has been that Brexit Party voters will flock to the Conservatives where there is no Brexit Party Candidate.

On the Remain side there has been this somewhat odd pact between the Liberal Democrats, The Greens and Plaid Cymru. The main benefactor of such an alliance is predicted to be The Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have been a close second to the Conservative Party as running the most dishonest campaign in this election, as I outlined in an earlier post. If the Liberal Democrats are coming second in the dishonesty race, it’s the only race they are even close to being second in. Their withdraw article 50 and stop Brexit in its tracks position has not gone down well, so now the party has been forced to flip flop back to calling for a second referendum.

Within the Green Party there has been considerable dismay at the Party leadership decision to form a pact with the Lib Dems. In Bristol the local candidate defied this decision and made the call to stand aside and support the Labour candidate. Many Green Party supporters have expressed the view that their leadership is out of touch. Further that the Lib Dems environmental policies are poor, and not a party the Greens should have formed a pact with. This blog post by London Green Left Blog sums up some of the concerns.

Under First Past the Post, a system that leaves much to be desired minor parties struggle. Vote splitting can be a real problem, and a party can win government despite only receiving over a third of the vote. In this context we can see why there is pressure on the Brexit Party not to take votes off the Tories, or for the Lib Dems to try and soak up the votes of other pro EU parties. The question is, how to voters feel about this? As we’ve seen, plenty of Green Party supporter did not appreciate being told to vote for the Lib Dems, and have decided themselves in many cases to vote Labour or do something else. The assumption that everyone who voted the Brexit Party in the 2019 EU elections would switch to Tory if told so by the party is also a huge assumption. Some will of course, but others will go elsewhere.

An interesting example of how tactical voting can play out in illustrated in the below poll result from Salvation polling done in Bath before the 2017 election:

poll result

Whether their statement below is true or not is speculation. However it is interesting when the same group of voters are asked their intentions, one with the assumption that race was between Conservative and Lib Dems, the other when its a 3 horse race.

So what should we take from this. Voters can be influenced by polling and at times do chose to vote tactically, even when polling has proven to be very unreliable in UK elections. Forming electoral pacts is risky, as potentially you are asking voters to support a party because of a position on one issue (Brexit) when actually they find their other policies unpalatable. To assume voters will uniformly fall in line and vote for a party other than they one they really support for tactical reasons would be naive.

Social media – a force for good?

There is plenty of criticism about the role that Social Media plays in democracy. There have been plenty of high profile cases such as the Cambridge Analytica where people’s personal data from Facebook had been used without people’s consent. This data was then used by those campaigning for Brexit.

After the horrific terror attacks in New Zealand earlier this year there was considerable criticism about the role social media had played. There have been plenty of other examples of the far right using social media to promote messages of hate and bigotry.

But social media can also be a force for good. I have used Facebook live to film a Wellington Regional Council meeting where they were discussing the future of the regions bus service. The media had failed to show up to this event, and it was this tool which meant drivers and concerned members of the public could be kept informed.

Social media played a significant role in the 2017 UK election. The so-called youth quake where under 30s turned out to vote in much higher numbers than usual, is largely attributed social media campaigns run by Momentum and other campaign groups.

Since living in the UK I have seen how social media plays a vital role. In early 2018 there were large protests in London demanding increases for to NHS funding. The BBC didn’t bother to report on these protests at all. After days of considerable social media footage and posts, US president Donald Trump mentioned the protests in a tweet (where he inaccurately claimed people were protesting against the NHS, when in fact they were demanding more funding). Only after Trumps Tweet did the UKs national broadcaster bother to report that these protests had occurred.

In my previous post I alluded to some of the common complaints and concerns about traditional media. The beauty about social media is that anybody can publish anything. It’s very hard to suppress a story or completely shut down a debate as did often happen in the pre internet age. Conversely though, it does mean anyone can post anything. And it means people can pretend to be someone they are not, or present something in a deliberately misleading way.

During the ITV leaders debate on Tuesday, The UK Conservative Party changed their twitter handle to factcheckUK. This allowed the Conservatives to rebut statements made by Labour, not as the Conservatives but by pretending to be an independent fact checker site. Twitter has condemned this action and warned the Conservatives they will take action if it happens again.

The account description during the debate was 'Fact Checking Labour from CCHQ'
The UK Conservative Party change their twitter handle to factcheckUK during the ITV election debate. Twitter has said the Conservatives mislead the public by doing this. 

Two days later the Conservatives were at it again. They released a fake Labour manifesto page on the same morning that the Labour Party were releasing their manifesto in Birmingham. There has been widespread criticism that the Conservative Party are using digital media to run a misinformation campaign.

A major discussion is happening globally about how much freedom of speech there should be on social media. There are growing calls for social media platforms to monitor their content, and calls for platforms to remove misleading or offensive content. There is  concern that during elections it is too easy to spread misinformation which could then affect the election outcome.

As someone who has used social media platforms to run campaigns or to engage in political discussion and debates, I can see both sides. Misinformation is never a good thing. Social media has at times meant certain voices or perspectives get a hearing that  struggled to do so with traditional media. But that in turn also means certain voices many of us are uncomfortable hearing from, such as the far right, also get a voice.

We should be wary of calls for greater regulation, censorship or general control over what can and can’t be published online. Who do we want policing this? Social media companies like Facebook or Twitter? They are private businesses with their own motives. The government? We can see above a government using online media to spread misinformation – do we really want them being the censors?

Social media offers enormous opportunities to improve our democratic societies, and engage people in debate and discussion in ways that haven’t been possible in the past. But like traditional media, it is far from perfect. In the UK we’ve seen it used to engage young voters and to get news stories out that otherwise wouldn’t have been given airtime. But we also see political organisations using social media deceptively.

Social media platforms are still relatively young, and are still developing as democratic tools. As citizens we should decide what we want our social media to look like. Also to call out and expose those who try to use it for ill or deception.