Steve Jones recalls how Facebook took him on a dark journey and why he now regrets voting to Leave the EU.
I have a confession to make. In 2016, I blindly voted to leave the European Union. It was my vote and, although not fully comfortable with the way I voted, I felt part of the democratic process.
Sitting comfortably at home with a glass of Jack Daniel’s on the night of the EU Referendum, Nigel Farage popped up on the TV. He conceded that Remain “would probably edge it”. My phone rang immediately and, before looking at it, I instantly knew it would be my dad, gloating. He had spent the referendum campaign urging me to vote Remain – advice, I wish now, I had taken.
“I told you Remain would win” he kept repeating. My automatic comeback to him was “no, ‘project fear’ had won.” We ended the conversation laughing. In that moment, on that night, it didn’t really matter who had won. I went to bed giving the referendum no more thought.
Before getting out of bed the next morning, I took my phone from the bedside cabinet and checked Facebook. It was alight with “freedom”, “we’re leaving” and – unsettlingly – “when can we kick them out?” Jubilant post after jubilant post. Within a few hours, the atmosphere had changed – an atmosphere reminiscent of the Liverpool comeback of 2005. Let me tell you the story of how I came to vote Leave.
Medically discharged from the forces after suffering a traumatic brain injury – an injury which put me in hospital for a year – my life was beginning to settle down.
Through determination, a lot of tears and with a lot of laughter and love from my family, in 2014 my life was beginning to settle down. Waking from a coma some years earlier, unable to talk, walk or even recognise my own family, I had rehabilitated to the point where I was starting university.
What made 2013 more significant for me was that military veteran groups were appearing on Facebook and I was reconnecting with people I had lost contact with, some for more than a decade. We bantered like we had never been apart, used old nicknames that had been lost in a civilian world and my old life in the forces had now been resurrected on social media.
I was invited to a group reunion in Birmingham. I told my family, who were reluctant to let me go. Posting on the group that I would not be attending, due to my family’s apprehension, I was flooded with offers of people wanting to take me. Finally, a friend turned up at my door, put my family at ease and we departed for Birmingham. I felt I belonged to something again, something we all had respect for – a belonging I was missing.
Fast forward a year and the secret Facebook group began to take structure. There was a hierarchy of ‘admins’ who kept us under control. Every now and then someone would post a below the belt but comical image. Admins reported the image to Facebook. The platform had bans raging from seven days up to 30 for repeat offenders. As a collective, we all giggled about it.
I cannot pinpoint the exact time, or the how, but the humour gradually became darker. The group’s admins were punishing more and more people. They were stamping their foot of authority down and the members respected them for it.
Away from Facebook, my dad would grumble about the rise of UKIP in our area. My dad was an old union rep and Labour flowed through his veins. “Where were UKIP during the strikes? Where was Farage then?” My dad instantly hated Nigel Farage, so much so that he would change the channel if he appeared on the news.
On Facebook, the odd anti-Muslim post would appear, usually shared by a UKIP supporter. I came to expect it and, with ignorance powering my thumb, I scrolled past without taking any notice. I ignored the slow rise and popularity of UKIP, much of which was powered by Facebook.
In June 2016, everyone turned into a politician, everyone had an opinion and they were always right.
On the military veterans’ Facebook groups – which felt more like home than my physical home – anti-Jeremy Corbyn images appeared. One was of the Labour leader alongside Gerry Adams at an IRA funeral. The hatred for Corbyn went nuclear. Like the UKIP ads, I ignored it. My dad was a huge Corbyn supporter and it was easier for me to just not get involved. One bloke did try to intervene with “it isn’t Corbyn” but he was instantly ambushed and bullied out of the group with accusation after accusation.
A tsunami of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-Corbyn images swamped Facebook. There was no escaping it. Back then, I needed Facebook – I needed the life it gave me; a belonging I longed for after becoming detached from the forces and society. At the time, I felt I was me again and living the life I should have had if it wasn’t for this wretched brain injury – an injury that has left me reliant on my family. On the Facebook group, I was the black sheep of the flock and not fully comfortable with this new, dark humour. Yet, like an ordinary sheep on that fateful day of 23 June 2016, I put my ‘X’ next to Leave.
I deleted my Facebook account the day Boris Johnson became Prime Minister this year. Everyone had turned into a politician again. More images were appearing and the threads that followed were horrendous. It was a repeat of 2016, but on steroids.
A few days ago, curiosity got the better of me and I resurrected my deleted account. Instantly, I was bombarded with anti-Corbyn images. I knew not to comment on the posts as I witnessed the rage if anyone did. Instead, I reported them to Facebook for being fake news. Slowly, they disappeared but I am filled with dreaded angst that they will turn up again and, like 2016, we’ll have yet another Facebook Election.