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Politicians blocking users on Twitter

IMG_7731Yesterday evening I was browsing Twitter, and saw this tweet about serious allegations of election fraud by UKIP from Labour politician John Mann (Bassetlaw) retweeted into my timeline. Oh, I’ll retweet that I thought (I’m on John’s side here, not UKIP’s), but Twitter prevented it – it turns out my main Twitter account (@jonworth) is blocked by @JohnMannMP – see screenshot.

This perplexed me, as I have only ever twice tweeted John Mann – both of these tweets from 27 November 2013 (it required searching to locate as I couldn’t even remember them – thanks Andrés):

In these tweets my critique is at least as much levelled at Crick as it is at Mann, although confusing a social democrat with the populist right wing is a bit of an error in my view. But as those are the only tweets I have ever written to John Mann, I can only presume those are the reason I am blocked. I of course cannot tweet John Mann to ask because, well, I am blocked, and hence have no way to reach him on Twitter any more. I am also not the only one to be blocked by Mann, and be perplexed as to why. Are those tweets really reason enough to block someone?

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Why Twitter works better than Facebook for discussions about the EU


Following my earlier blog entry about Twitter chats I was confronted by a familiar charge – ah, Frans Timmermans is a Facebook guy. He doesn’t like Twitter. That’s the problem. There are probably some pretty good reasons he likes Facebook, and not Twitter, and I will come to those at the end of the post.

But, sorry Frans, but I don’t “Like” your page on Facebook, and I have some pretty good reasons for that.

The first, and most minor problem, is my issue with the word. To me “Like” implies endorsing something. Follow (on Twitter) does not. I in no way endorse Frans Timmermans. Oh, you’re exaggerating will come the riposte, yet when I “Liked” Guy Verhofstadt in his bid to become Commission President, friends of mine fired back the accusation that I was wrong to Like Verhofstadt as he’s a liberal and I am leftie. What you like on Facebook comes with a social norm attached. If I saw a journalist Liking politicians it would raise a question mark about their impartiality, and there are personal friends of mine who refuse to Like anything political on Facebook because they fear what work colleagues will make of it.

Second, Facebook is useless for thematic discussion. I might have some interest in what Timmermans does on Better Regulation in Brussels, but I also have interest in what a dozen other politicians might have to say about that. Putting it another way, I want to be able to consume content from people and to consume content by theme. Only by Liking the Facebook pages of a dozen politicians could I possibly follow a thematic debate, and even then it would be split up all over Facebook without any coherence. Hashtags on Twitter are what can hold a thematic discussion together – hashtags on Facebook have never proven to be nearly as effective.

Third, Facebook controls what I see, while on Twitter I am to a much greater extent in control of what I see (and my obsessive use of Twitter Lists and filters in Tweetbot helps further). The problem is Facebook’s News Feed, and its algorithm that will only show me – on average – 1 in 20 posts from a politician’s page, and then according to factors Facebook determines rather than ones I determine. That might be handy for information I was not looking for (it throws up significant developments in friends’ lives, for example) but it’s pretty horrid if I am trying to follow a debate.

Those then are the reasons Twitter works better for EU political debate than Facebook does in my view.

Then finally my feeling about why Facebook appeals to Frans Timmermans: because Facebook inspires a kind of fan-like fervent following for this most supremely confident and charming politician, who gives the impression that he is rather a fan of himself (perhaps with good reason). Frans seems to be more about Frans than he is about the issues – you Like Frans because he is Frans and worth following. That feels good for his ego. And that’s a perfect match on Facebook.

Commission Twitter-chats: interactivity-washing

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 14.40.50At 1600 CET today, First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans will do an online chat on Twitter and Facebook* – tag is #AskFrans. Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc will do the same on Monday 27th April at 1400 CET – tag there is #ITS2015chat.

Oooooh, look, little users of social media! Come and ‘chat’ to the Commissioners for an hour! Look at how interactive I am!

So the Commissioners can thereafter resort to form and then broadcast out pictures of them shaking hands with people, or retweet quotes of theirs spoken at events, for the rest of the time.

Put it another way: Twitter chats are convenient interactivity-washing – they demonstrate some engagement, but strictly on the Commissioner’s own terms, and at a time they themselves set. In the case of Bulc and Timmermans it therefore means that @-replying them at any other time is like tweeting into a black hole. Not only is next to impossible to get a reply from either of them, but it is also a perfectly reasonable assumption that none of the everyday tweets written first person in their name are actually written by them. If you doubt it, look for any sort of normal Twitter interaction here from Timmermans or here from Bulc – you won’t find any. Malmström and Georgieva are the exceptions in the Commission, not the rule.

That doesn’t mean these chats are useless – they are better than nothing. But they are far from being the solution for good online communications from Commissioners!

* – yes, I am aware that Timmermans is more of a Facebook fan than a Twitter person, but Twitter is the social network for EU policy discussion, and all Commissioners are present on it.

Uber returning to Brussels: I think this is a decent solution


Taxis in Brussels have been been plastered with the slogan “Ceci n’est pas un taxi clandestin” for some months now, in protest at Uber that was allowed in Belgium, then banned, and now – according to this story from Politico – has a reprieve and its legal status will be sorted out.

The argument was that the regular taxis were somehow honest and regulated, and Uber was not, and hence the slogans on the official taxis. Yet the Politico piece quotes Belgian deputy PM Alexander De Croo who says that Brussels taxis actually only declare an average of €25 each a day in income. Clearly a lot of the money the taxis are making is going undeclared. Who is actually clandestin then?

The solution Brussels proposes for Uber therefore strikes me as inherently sensible. The official taxis will be to a certain extent sorted out (they will have to accept credit cards for example), and they will be the only ones allowed to use taxi ranks, taxi lanes, and to be flagged down on the street. They will be the kind of public service orientated taxi service – with higher privileges and higher obligations. Think of them of the black cabs of London.

Uber drivers will be the ones providing the lower level of service – they have to be pre-ordered, and may still be cheaper, and you may as a customer not know what you will get, but the drivers will have to be established as independents, pay taxes, and have Uber as only a secondary source of income – good. Think of Uber as like minicabs in London.

The compromise here strikes me as inherently sensible. Whether you like or loathe Uber as a firm is not the right way to look at this – mobile internet, and different ways to establish trust and social norms, can change the way business is conducted. Law to protect the old business model of taxi firms is not the solution here; regulation of companies like Uber, and some organisation of the market is. Brussels has got the balance right here I think.

(Please note: I have never used Uber, and do not intend to do so. I use taxis on average about twice a year, when there is simply no other way to get to my destination. So I am not writing this from the point of view of someone trying to defend something that matters to me personally. It doesn’t.)

[UPDATE 22.4.2015, 1600] More details of the practical aspects of the new taxi regulation from Pascal de Smet here (thanks @BrusselsGeek for the tip)

Slave to the freelance life

I am sat writing this in the train between Berlin and Brussels. It’s the 7th time I am taking this trip (or the opposite direction) in 2015; in 2014 I did it 25 times. Yes, I could fly, and pump some more CO2 into the atmosphere to save myself 90 minutes each time, but that’s not the issue here.

I am off to a city – Brussels – that I visit too often for work purposes, to do work I have done too often and is hence no longer as fun as it once was, for pay that is inadequate given the time and responsibility it entails.

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Beware the UIC Train to Paris – cross border rail for dignitaries only

4166912838_3c94ded9ea_oIn 2009 the United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Copenhagen. The UIC organised a special night train (pictured) for dignitaries to be able to get from Brussels to Copenhagen by rail – the Climate Express. By 2009 regular night trains to Brussels were already history, and in 2014 Deutsche Bahn axed its Copenhagen – Amsterdam / Basel / Prague service. I wrote about the hypocricy of this on my blog here.

So fast forward to 2015, and we are at it again. The latest round of COP (COP21) negotiations is in Paris 30th November – 11th December 2015, and the UIC is at it again – its public relations department is already going into overdrive, with a dedicated website and Twitter account about the train(s) they will run to get people to the conference.

The trains will run to Paris, the hub of SNCF that has abolished the vast majority of its national night trains, and cancelled all of them to Spain and Germany. The country that has such a lousy collaboration with its neighbour railways that its timetables are a mess at Irun-Hendaye and it doesn’t sell tickets at Genève or Ventimiglia even though it runs trains from both. Set this against the wider background of decreasing numbers of international connections across many borders in Europe as I have documented on this blog.

So here’s an idea, journalists and reporters – rather than swallowing this nice PR from UIC, ask why regular passengers do not have access to similar services as the dignitaries do. Ask the dignitaries and politicians what the last time was that they actually travelled on a long distance rail service, and ask what they are doing to save and improve cross border rail in the EU.

Yes, rail is a green way to travel. But organising cross border trains for publicity purposes is no good – it’s green washing!

[Update 20.4.15, 2230] – turns out there’s a Climate Express that’s activist run. That looks a whole lot better!

France’s LGV Rhin-Rhône best serves… Paris. So much for high speed lines of regional importance!

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 10.43.01

Back when the Rhine-Rhône high speed TGV line (in French: LGV Rhin-Rhône) was being planned it was described that “In contrast to France’s other high speed lines — apart from the bypass round the east of Paris — LGV Rhin-Rhône was conceived primarily as an inter-regional route and not as a high speed link from the provinces to the capitalby Railway Gazette.

The thing is that – in my experience – this line is not actually completing that task very well at all. I am trying to plan a Berlin – (Mannheim) – Béziers rail trip this summer, and the only decent connection going southbound takes me via Paris Est along the LGV Est instead (details here).

So how then is the LGV Rhin-Rhône doing as a non-Paris connected TGV line? These are the only 8 trains that use it towards southern France for my test day, 21st April 2015. Trains marked * are international.

TGV 6886 – Basel SBB-Marseille*
TGV 6839 TGV 6841 – Strasbourg-Montpellier
TGV 6835 TGV 6837 TGV 6826 – Strasbourg-Marseille
TGV 6849 – Strasbourg-Lyon
TGV 9580 – Frankfurt (Main)-Marseille*

The connections with Germany are especially poor – this is just one daily through service. The connections to Stuttgart, Nice and Barcelona that Railway Gazette hopes for have of course not materialised.

Using the LGV Rhin-Rhône towards Paris – it’s a lot better! 16 trains a day! Mulhouse is especially well served, with 12 services a day to Paris Gare de Lyon.

TGV 6700 TGV 6704 TGV 6706 TGV 6708 – Mulhouse-Paris
TGV 6745 TGV 6749 TGV 6765  – Besançon Viotte-Paris (uses only part of the LGV Rhin-Rhône)
TGV 5152 – Mulhouse-Lille (via Paris Airport CDG)
TGV 9588 – Freiburg (Breisgau)-Paris*
TGV 6886 – Basel SBB-Paris*
TGV 9206 TGV 9210 TGV 9218 TGV 9222 TGV 9226 TGV 9230 – Zürich-Paris*

So this is French railways again behaving as they always do – it is always all about Paris. Everything else is secondary.

(some numbers amended since initially publishing this, thanks to assistance from Twitter – the main point stands though!)

A letter to the Greek government from a concerned leftie

2800220446_69be093238_bDear Alexis, dear Yanis,

When Syriza emerged as the largest party at the election on 25th January I smiled. That’s the end of New Democracy and PASOK, a time to turn the page, for Greece to be able to make a new start, I thought. I bet a bunch of traditional social democrats in positions of power loathed your success, but I know a fair few folks across Europe who were ready to give you the benefit of the doubt. Appointing Yanis as finance minister seemed a clever move, while his mastery of Twitter, choosing to fly economy, and no-ties dress sense endeared him to many.

You had made the moral case – crushing austerity in Greece had to end. Thousands living without electricity, or needing citizen-run clinics and soup kitchens is unacceptable within the European Union. No-one can dispute this. The targets of your critique – the troika that had imposed swingeing cuts, and previous Greek governments that had allowed these to be borne by the poorest in the society – were understandable. Removing the metal barriers at Syntagma Square, and reinstating government cleaners were neat symbolic decisions at the start.

That you chose the Independent Greeks as your coalition partner raised some eyebrows. Yes, they oppose austerity, but they are close to the orthodox church and their leader Pannos Kammenos seems to be an anti-semite. Why you chose to work with them, rather than The River, seemed odd. That you needed to make a government quickly was understood in Brussels, so you were given the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps this choice was a sign of what was to come? Appointing an all-male cabinet was also not a smart move, not least considering how important gender balance is to your comrades in Spain.

What has happened since – seen from the outside anyway – looks like you are stumbling from one crisis to another. Considering that Syriza was in the lead in the opinion polls from the end of 2013, it should not have been a surprise that you managed to gain power. Yet it looks to the outside like you had scant little plan as to what to do with it once you got it.

Wolfgang Schäuble might be a bitter old man, but public spats with him are not handy, especially when the German press is dead set against you. Threatening to seize German assets in Greece is not helpful. Playing brinkmanship with the submission of reform lists is not going to win you friends. Mixed signals from within Syriza about what your demands are – with contradictory demands communicated – make it hard to know what you actually want. That it took you until the end of March to look like you were interested in dealing with tax evasion looks odd. Yanis might have survived the Stinkefinger episode (the video was faked), but the Paris Match photoshoot was not a good call.

The biggest error of all though has been the incessant talk about World War II reparations from Germany. This is an ‘open wound‘ according to Costas Isychos – yes, because Greece keeps on opening it! Even using civil service time to calculate a sum owed by Germany – a sum that conveniently happens to be just above the amount Greece owes its debtors – is a questionable use of public resources.

The phrase ‘don’t mention the war’ is sometimes said a little sarcastically in Brussels, but there is meaning to it – the European Union has allowed Europe to move on after World War II. Animosities are left to rest, and a spirit of cooperation has largely been fostered. Yes, Germany may have behaved wrongly towards Greece since 2008, but two wrongs do not make a right. To solve Greece’s economic woes while remaining in the Eurozone is going to need Germany on your side; talking about war reparations is going to have precisely the opposite effect.

As if that were not enough, Alexis goes off to meet Vladimir Putin. Yes, Putin might sound more generous than the EU, but his aim is to further split the EU, and he is a despot. One of Syriza’s key arguments is that the democratic will of the Greek people, expressed at the January elections, should be respected – how does it then look to be cosying up with anti-democrat Vladimir?

Both the reparations issue, and visiting Putin, make it look like Greece is externalising its problems. Blame history, and seek help from someone more friendly. The appeal of these routes might be strong, but they are no substitute for getting things right internally in Greece – stamping out corruption and tax evasion, reorientating the budget away to assist the poorest people, reducing Greece’s debt, and allowing the Greek economy to grow (there are some signs of life).

Put this another way, if Greece looks like it is serious about trying to sort its own problems, there might still be the good will within the European Union to assist. Point the finger and blame, or turn to Russia, and reserves of goodwill shall disappear ever quicker.

Hoping you can still make it,

Jon Worth

[UPDATE – 10.4.15, 0900]
It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter that it is not decisively known if the Stinkefinger video was faked or not. This SZ piece gives the case for and against, and The Local summarises it in English. This of course leaves open the question as to whether Jauch should have used the video in the first place… but that’s another issue.