14 April 2019

local democracy

Power in the shadows

  • Merthyr Tydfil in Wales overthrew its Labour council with the help of a Facebook group that started as protest against parking wardens
  • Ahead of council elections in many areas of the UK next month, closed groups are influencing voters, but how are they administered and moderated?
  • The risk is that such groups can become a breeding ground for lies and extreme views, closing off political debate and dissent

By Xavier Greenwood

LISTEN: Power in the shadows by Xavier Greenwood (11:10)

It’s a bright spring day in Merthyr Tydfil, but Lee Heggie can’t see the sunlight. He has a windowless shop where he fixes computers and repairs photographs in relative darkness. It’s hardly the place you’d come to start a political revolution.

But Heggie has turned out to be an underestimated and unlikely power in Wales’s Taff valley. In Merthyr Tydfil, where Keir Hardie, Labour’s first leader, served as MP, Heggie picked a fight with the Labour establishment.

In January 2014, he created a closed Facebook group called Merthyr Council Truths. He’d been chatting with his friend’s wife on Facebook about how the council had “screwed them over”. There was a feeling in Merthyr Tydfil that small market traders were being unfairly targeted by private parking wardens.

Merthyr Council Truths now has 18,122 members

“I thought, I’m going to start a group because I can’t fight them on my own,” Heggie says. “If I can create a group and bring everyone together to share their views on how the local authority has treated people in this town, then people are going to think something is going to be done about this. The response we had was unbelievable: I think we had 8,000 members in 48 hours.”

Today, Merthyr Council Truths has 18,122 members. They account for 40 per cent of the local authority electorate and well over the 14,868 votes cast in the last local elections. Heggie, along with two other administrators, is responsible for vetting new members, approving new posts and moderating comments.

“Labour treated that group as an enemy from day one,” Heggie continues. “They were laughing at us. They had a photo of a chicken and called me ‘Lee Eggie, the Labour destroyer’. And they were laughing about that. But it backfired on them.”

In the council elections of May 2017, voters staged a revolt. The Merthyr Tydfil constituency, once a Labour stronghold, turned independent. “It’s complacency, it is,” Heggie tells me from over his shop counter. “In this town, Labour never met an opposition like they did in the last elections.”

Voting in Merthyr Tydfil's local elections in 2017, when Labour lost the council

Labour’s seats plummeted from 25 to 15, the independents’ seats soared from eight to 18. A post-mortem might blame the incumbency of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It might point out that independent candidates have done well before in post-industrial Wales. It probably wouldn’t factor in a private social network on Facebook.

Merthyr Council Truths has emerged as a powerful force in local politics, stepping into the space left by the waning enthusiasm for political parties and the decline of local media. It’s not alone. Across the UK, these networks are growing. They’re private, popular and powerful. The gates are kept by locals; they’re where members can buy and sell, fight and gossip, but also politick: talk, protest, organise.

The pattern is repeating elsewhere, from Newport’s Casnewydd News (6,099 members), where dubious claims about “no deal” and the European Union infect discussions, to Essex’s Rayleigh Community Group (10,437 members), which a former councillor is “disappointed to see being used for party political purposes”. Next month’s local elections are argued out on them through the furious lens of the perceived disrespect shown towards the Brexit vote by the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

The nation is engaged in intense political discussions which most of us can’t see. With 270 councils up for grabs in the local elections on 2 May, Merthyr Council Truths is beginning to look like a prototype. Not as a folksy community group, but as an alternative, opaque kind of political organisation.

Only one opencast mine remains of Merthyr Tydfil's coal mining past

For Facebook, which is struggling to free itself from one political scandal after the next, it suggests that Mark Zuckerberg’s decision this year to move the company forcefully into the private social network business is not going to free him of public and political responsibilities. If anything, the opposite. In politics, Facebook is creating the next version of the public square, only it’s in private.

The private social network looks set to be the next wave of the internet and – like the waves that have come before – it’s likely to be misunderstood and underestimated. Much like the bulletin boards, then “user-generated content”, social media platforms and messaging apps, private social networks are hailed for offering community and creativity, cohesion and connection. And yet, private social networks are harder to police for truth and responsibility. They are even more prone to sowing division, fostering polarisation and enabling communities of hate. They represent the new battleground between politics and the internet.

 

Those who wish to stereotype Merthyr Tydfil need only go to the Wyndham Arms, once named one of the roughest pubs in Britain. At 2pm on a Wednesday, the pub is loud, drunk, male, and aggressive. Signs on the bar read: “Unless you’re a haemorrhoid, get off my ass”, “This property is protected by: pit bull with Aids”, and “No bloody swearing”. The jukebox is broken, so Gold Radio blasts Video Killed the Radio Star from an old Sanyo television.

In this former mining community, half of economically inactive residents are labelled “long-term sick”, more than double the UK average. But this isn’t the whole story. Unemployment in Merthyr is below the national average for Wales and it remains a proud and energised town. Every May, it plays host to Merthyr Rising, a music, arts and ideas festival which commemorates the anniversary of one of the very first workers’ revolts, in 1831, when miners took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil and raised the red flag of revolution.

Coal miners in the Taff Merthyr colliery in the 1980s

The spark for Merthyr’s modern revolution came in February 2016 with the arrival in the town of a private company, 3GS, employed by the council to crack down on litter. One Facebook member described 3GS wardens as “Gestapo officers”, another member, now a local councillor, asked: “Who pays the wages of the Stasi if no fixed penalty notices are dished out?”

A torrent of complaints followed. One member claimed he was fined for feeding a bird in the KFC car park. Another said her grandson was fined for “spitting” after he coughed outside McDonald’s. Pictures and videos of the wardens were frequently posted on the group.

Come January 2017, the wardens were gone. “Merthyr Council Truths has been in the frontline battling the council’s use of 3GS litter wardens who put profit before morals,” wrote Heggie triumphantly. The departure of the wardens came down, it seems, to pressure from the group, and the eventual success of its administrators in finding a legal loophole to stop the ticketing.

A council spokeswoman told Wales Online at the time: “The pilot scheme has been successful in terms of reducing litter, however a number of complaints have also been received from members of the public regarding the approach adopted by 3GS when dealing with offenders.”

Poster promoting Merthyr Tydfil in the town's bus station

But this wasn’t the end of it. The local elections were just four months away and Heggie says that members of Merthyr Council Truths, riled up by the battles they had fought, “put their foot on their step and said: ‘We’re standing as councillors.’ Because the group was so big and the turnout so small, I think that’s what pushed the independents into power.”

“It was the first time,” says Lyn Williams, one of the organisers of Merthyr Rising, “that councillors and the council itself were held to so much scrutiny by local people.”

Heggie claims that all the active members of the group who ran won seats on the council, including two former administrators.

Among them was Tanya Skinner, who ousted the Labour council leader in winning her seat. She agrees that the group profited from fomenting bad blood. “The election did demonstrate that people were very disillusioned with Labour. Merthyr Council Truths was very often a place where those views were aired. People would say: ‘We’re sick of Labour, you could put a rosette on a donkey and they’d get in’.”

But it is what has allegedly happened since the independents have come into power that serves as a cautionary tale for playing out local politics through a closed Facebook group. Merthyr Council Truths, having been a tool to open up political debate in the area, has become a means to close it down.

The Welsh hills around the Taff valley

It didn’t used to be so. “We would pretty much let people have their say,” Skinner says. “That was quite important for all of us that it didn’t become an echo chamber.” But when the majority of administrators left at the end of 2016, the group “started to become the antithesis of what we’d set out to do”.

The suspicion is that criticism of the independents has been censored. Kerry Gibbs, a former administrator and wife of a local councillor, recalls a “heated” conversation on the group last year about a private care home provider, which involved criticism of the independent leader and his wife. “I started to notice comments [criticising the leader] being deleted,” she says, “which is what you find when a big emotive topic comes along. I started to get involved and I could see some of my own comments were disappearing.”

Heggie insists that the administrators only reject derogatory posts. “We’ve had posts where people have been accused of being paedophiles,” he says. “That guy could have family and be super innocent. Then you’ve got Dai Bloggs over there who weighs in because he sold him a dodgy car, accusing him of being a paedophile.”

Another former administrator, who wishes to remain anonymous, alleges that members who dissent from the prevailing politics of the group are blocked. “It has a huge impact on the town because it’s not run like an open community. It’s very much a dictatorship. Those who don’t subscribe to the views of the administrators are banned.”

More than 1,000 people are banned from the group, according to Heggie, either because they’re not from the area or “for being racist, swearing at people, or spamming the group”.

Gibbs claims that, since she and others left as administrators, “there have been big culls”, and that “if you look at the banned list now, you will see it is pretty much the Constituency Labour Party [CLP] in Merthyr Tydfil.”

Locals estimate that Merthyr Tydfil’s CLP membership, the number of Labour Party members in the constituency, is about 550 people.

Despite its population of 63,500, Merthyr has only one local paper

“The admins act like three people in the bubble,” Gibbs says. “It’s not just a matter of protecting the politics, they’re protecting themselves.” Lyn Williams was banned “for being a bit abrasive” towards perceived bias in administrators; his wife was banned, Williams claims, after getting upset at an administrator for posting photos of a car accident she was involved in with her children; Gibbs’s husband was banned after an administrator was criticised by some members for a comment he made towards a local councillor. “Forty people were kicked out that night, including my husband.”

The most serious accusation, made by the anonymous administrator, is that “one of the council members is definitely influencing the group,” something which Heggie denies. “Don’t think the group is the local arm of the independents. It’s not.”

There’s no evidence of a formal relationship between the independent-run council and Merthyr Council Truths, but Heggie’s own posts on the group show his direct line of communication with independent councillors and pro-independent voices.

Paul Mason, whose forthcoming book Clear Bright Future deals with the psychology of the xenophobic right, believes the real issue comes when truth falls out of discussions. “If a closed group is only there to assemble a political force to take over a council and then shut down dissenters, that’s ugly but contestable. It’s when the ‘truths’ become actual lies, and the group becomes a bubble for people who want to believe them that’s the problem.”

This is pertinent when private social networks are stepping into the space left by the decline of the local press. The Merthyr Express, founded in 1864, has now been subsumed by Wales Online, the news website that has swallowed up a lot of local reporting in the country. A print edition is produced weekly and its coverage extends well beyond Merthyr Tydfil to the surrounding towns. “I’ve had people come to my shop,” claims Heggie, “and say: ‘I don’t use my tablet much, only for Merthyr Council Truths and checking my bank statements.’”

And any reliance on Merthyr Council Truths as a news source comes with its risks, given that the group can play hosts to rumours, misinterpretations and sometimes outright lies. There were several falsehoods circulating on the group about Muslims in the months leading up to the 2016 referendum in which Merthyr Tydfil voted 56-44 to leave the European Union. Williams recalls a “big Tommy Robinson fan” who caused consternation on the group, about a year before the EU referendum, by falsely claiming that the old YMCA building in the town was being turned into a mosque.

Though the original post was deleted the conversation continued in a follow-up thread.

Another rumour, posted on Merthyr Council Truths a few months later, claimed that the local primary school had made children pray to Allah, which sparked a thread of more than 1,000 comments.

I ask Heggie how he feels about being a gatekeeper for truth on a group where misinformation and lies can spread so quickly. “When you try to say ‘lies’ and that, what is a lie? Who knows what is a lie on the group and what isn’t a lie? How do we know?”

But Mason believes someone needs to take responsibility in a group like Merthyr Council Truths. “The answer is not to shut down closed groups,” he says, “but to treat them like subscription newspapers: as a form of publishing where someone, ultimately, takes responsibility and anyone can see what’s in them (even if they can’t join).”

Heggie as publisher is an unlikely thought: his own truths are conspiratorial. He thinks the EU is a “Rothschild ideology” on the way to becoming a global superstate. He believes the 9/11 attacks were “definitely an inside job” (apparently a stall owner in his market used to fly commercial airlines and “every time he went in a flight simulator and tried to simulate 9/11 he couldn’t hit the towers”). He is on the fence about the earth being flat because he’s “never been up there to have a look”. As for the future, Heggie is by no means finished with local politics. “I’m hoping to get a team together to fight Gerald Jones [the local Labour MP] in the next general election. We voted to leave the EU and the customs union. Gerald thinks we don’t know what we’re about and went against us. What gives him that right? We didn’t give him the power to overthrow us.”

With Merthyr Council Truths in his power, Heggie has a chance. The language of feeling “overthrown” is telling. Private social networks are subverting organisations and authority. They may change the rules of politics – and we may never know how.

Further reading

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explains his new “privacy-focused vision” for the site – a sincere attempt to address user concerns over their data or a way to pass the buck on moderation?
  • Journalist Paul Mason travels to Merthyr Tydfil and Newport in South Wales two years after the EU referendum vote and finds two places unhappy with the political establishment and channelling their anger through closed Facebook groups.
  • In a TED talk, activist and author Eli Pariser discusses the “filter bubble”, the “unique universe of information that you live in online”. If you are interested in what Pariser is saying, he has written a whole book on his filter bubble concept.
  • Researchers Elizabeth Dubois and Grant Blank argue that the high-choice media environment enabled by the internet can reduce the chance of falling into echo chambers, particularly among those who are interested in politics.
  • As part of a US midterms series on the interface of platforms, propaganda and politics, media scholar Jonathan Albright analyses how Facebook groups are being used to seed political ideas and conspiracies with little chance of detection.

 

All Photographs by Getty Images