Things are looking a bit shaky on the political landscape at present and for the first time in 40 years the prospect of a World War is crossing people’s minds.
Personally speaking I’ve been here before at least twice, both in the 80s with the Falklands War and in the 90s with the Gulf War (not forgetting those times when War seemed likely, but never quite happened.
What should we do when War seems very likely? Well, we should protest. We should demonstrate. But does it ever do any good? What do we reply to those people who say “What’s the point? It won’t achieve anything!”
What you do is, you tell them that protesting does produce results. For a start – Impact.
Everyone remembers the CND marches of the 60s, 70s and 80s; Poll Tax protests in the very early 90s; Greenham Common; the US over Vietnam. The fact that we remember these examples at all shows exactly how much impact they had.
“Well yes,” say the detractors, “But they didn’t have any effect.”
How do you know that? What proof do you have that protests don't (and never have had) any effect? For all you know, things might have been worse if nobody had protested! We could be living in a World created by the influence of protestors. If nobody had protested against the Vietnam War, it might have ended much later; and I think it’s safe to say that if nobody had demonstrated against the UK Poll Tax, it wouldn’t have been abolished three years after. OK so the World isn’t perfect, but I think we can all imagine how it could easily be much worse.
And don’t tell me the sheer weight of opinion can’t affect the way Governments turn. When organised protests start, the Media picks up on it, and tells the rest of the country. But it puts a political swing on it for its readership, until eventually one side has overwhelming support...which causes more readers to change their viewpoint, and then MPs take note and start taking the same sides...and you’ve got the PM basically apologising to everyone, while taking a detour in policy. Sound topical?
Things have changed though. We don’t seem to get quite as many physical protests now, and it’s easy to conclude that people are more apathetic, more satisfied with their lot, or basically just drunk on the opium that Governments feed us. But hang on, people are still protesting, and I think I know where they’re doing it.
Online. Social Media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You know longer have 40,000 people marching down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament, instead you have several million Tweets all criticising you. Protesting is still there, and it’s possibly stronger than ever.
Governments don’t like protesters, right? Well actually Governments love most protests. No matter how organised a Demo is, there’s a good chance it’ll eventually spawn or turn into a Riot, and then the Police will have to step in. Once that happens the protest is lost, and the Government wins, because now it’s Rioting, and Riots not only lose Public sympathy but are easy to control - you send in the Police, and the worse the Rioters behave, the more sympathy you get.
However Governments absolutely hate Twitter, probably for three main reasons.
Firstly, they can’t control it. No matter how organised a physical protest is, it’s still controllable in some way, because by watching it like a hawk, you can constrain it. But because Twitter has no physical presence, there’s no chance of an actual physical Riot, and therefore you can’t send the Police in.
Secondly, because nobody’s rioting, the Government can’t force a change in Public sympathy.
Thirdly, when a political Twitter storm comes winging your way, you can attempt to fight fire with fire and respond, but the fact that you are the Government automatically means you aren’t allowed to defend yourself without everyone assuming you’re either lying or “just saying that”.
And, like with the protests of the late 20th Century, the Media shark still waits in the shallows. But instead of thousands of people in Trafalgar Square, it now reports on large public changes of opinion. The irony of this of course that Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) is all about posting links to news stories while surrounding them with pithy comment.
So you and a million others Tweet. It gets reported in the Media. You retweet the reports. This causes more people to agree with you and Tweet...which gets reported...
It’s a fantastically self-perpetuation, and you can quickly see how relatively easy it is to use the mechanism yourself. The difference this time is the either side can start the ball rolling. So remember next time you're tweeting your disgust at some social injustice...who's pulling your strings? Are you working against the opposition...or for them?