Online Protests – why do they make me uneasy?

I write this with extreme trepidation and it is for this reason that I want to make the following clear from the start:

I personally do not condone the opinions or actions of Jan Moir or AA Gill.

Got it? Good. Right.

Now I am hoping there might be people out there who can help me to get to the bottom of my discomfort with regard these two recent events.

I’ve seen many use the Jan Moir affair as an example of democracy in action. It is certainly true that the will of many people led to the removal of advertising from an offensive and homophobic article and an apology from its author.

Now you can’t say that’s a bad thing… can you? So why do I feel so uneasy about it?

I think it’s not about the events themselves, but the implications of online collective action.

I’ve found it a hard thing to unpick. Having spoken to a few people about it, I can still only come up with fragments that go some way to explaining it.

These are:

  • The appearance of collective action is remarkably easy online, with many individuals able to contribute in small ways (a retweet, joining a Facebook group, writing a short blog post). But this also means responsibility for this action is fragmented. This puts such action in a strange space where it can wield huge power, but no one has ultimate responsibility for it. So what happens if the consequences of a collective action are severe?
  • While the internet offers the chance for everyone to speak, it generally favours the voices of a particular socio-economic, digitally literate group of people who communicate on some specific platforms that those in power seem to listen to.
  • The internet is a very public form of protest and, because these outcries are seen to be published and can have implications on search results (now a huge part of an individual or organisation’s reputation), authorities seems to react to them quicker than traditional forms of protest.
  • I’m aware I’m opening myself up to criticism. After all, I work in “the media”. If you ever wanted to find an example of collective action wielding unintended consequences, you are going to find it in my industry. I’m not defending it and I’m certainly not suggesting this rapidly growing form of protest should be banned. It’s a powerful and useful tool.

    But, with anything that’s powerful, there is always a dark side and, while not a perfect system, I guess with the media there is still an editor to sack, a product to boycott, a PCC to complain to.

    If those who had taken online action had got it wrong, if their action resulted in libel, invasion of privacy, injury or death, what would have happened?

32 thoughts on “Online Protests – why do they make me uneasy?

  1. Hi Joanna

    I share your unease and i’m glad you put it in to words. There’s no way I condone what Joan or AA Gill said/did but it fills me with a sense of ominous forboding at the power wielded by the select few in the social media space.

    All it takes is for a key influencer to make a comment…a sychophantic follower to retweet and in 10 minutes we have a trending topic on Twitter, Facebook groups and a witch hunt.

    If Jan Moir had been tipped over the edge and commited suicide who’s fault would it have been? Would everyone who retweeted be prosecuted with conspiracy to cause harm?

    Social media is a powerful platform…and you what they say in Spiderman…’With great power comes great responsibility’.

  2. Thanks for sharing your views! I think these issues are worthy of discussion, because it is easy to accept the orthodox view that the internet is always a vehicle for good and positive political change.

    What concerns me is that online activism can both easily slip into bullying (the hounding of Jan Moir, for instance – though personally I found that justified!) and also unthinking – it is so easy to sign up to something that the conscious decisions that were previsously needed can be absent.

    These are however early days: Twitter is just a couple of years old, and I think we are still adjusting to using it. It is the same for other media.

    Whilst you may be right about people of specific classes (it is easier than calling them – us? – “socio-economic groups”…) being active, I think that has always been the case: those people who cared sufficiently to write to their MP, or join Amnesty, or any one of many, many groups – all those people who actually chose to make their voice heard – have always been a small, self-selecting, unrepresentative part of society. That doesn’t mean that we are wrong. (Or right!)

  3. Hi Joanna

    I have had the same feeling about the favouring of a growing digital elite – twitter certainly appears to be left leaning overall. But of course its selective to who you choose to follow. You can choose to surround yourself with those you agree with as in life and echo eachothers comments, but its healthy to have a cross-section of opinions.

    What makes me uneasy is, like you said, online protests are so easy and annoymous. In a way it is degrading objection and protest to an armchair pastime.

  4. I think it’s a sign of a critical mind to question these things. I’m trying to find some time to research the issue with Jon Hickman because I think we need more tools – conceptual and practical – to help us react to and understand these things. Dismissing them as orchestrated and heralding it as the new democracy are equally uncritical reactions. Trafigura, Jan Moir, BBC-Nick Griffin, Ross-Brand are all different, but we struggle to articulate that.

  5. Hi Joanna, I’m expecting the first big angry mob failure any day… I don’t think it’s a case of if, but when the twitter/online collective gets it wrong or, like you said, has unintended consequences.

    All we can do is to check things out before blindy RT or fwd’ing them on and encourage others to do the same – something quite simple, which too often doesn’t happen.

  6. I’ve been thinking about writing something on my own blog on this subject since the furore about Nick Griffin appearing on Question Time, but haven’t been able to collect my thoughts sufficiently for even the most rambling of posts, so thanks for talking about it.

    I think it’s worth noting that this isn’t specifically a Twitter or online behaviour, so much as a very prominent part of our cultural character in the last two decades that Twitter and Facebook just happen to be good at pulling out – the suggestion of solidarity as a means to validate the self-value of the individual.

    Everything you say about dissolution of responsibility in a crowd is true, but the nature of this sort of protest, going back through the formless soft-rioting of recent protests over here, and in the US – where protesters have been banding together under a notional issue, but each carry very different messages on their placards – to the self-styled Royalists/Traditionalists complaining that the Queen wasn’t mourning the death of Diana publicly enough, is more about individuals hearing the sounds of their own voice with football chant backing than about any real attempt at submitting to a collective goal, or being genuinely moved by a real issue. It’s nowtrage that we generally see in pointless protest from the left, and pandering headlines from the right.

    Luke Williams, we have already seen this, though it didn’t really spill over onto the mainstream media stage, in the whole Amazon Fail debacle. That, frankly, was embarrassing.

  7. I have been thinking very much along the same lines as you and it has been concerning me greatly that too much emphasis can be placed on mob rule. There have already been instances of misplaced outrage based on unsubstantiated information.

    Only this month Yahoo was accused of passing account information to the Iranian authorities. A cry went up and the chattering started. It turned out that it was a false accusation and some people who should know better ended up with mud on their face http://government.zdnet.com/?p=5547. I also personally know of someone who is quite senior in a very large media company who was getting quite hot under the collar before the truth was out.

    Certainly these campaigns are not orchestrated in the same way that some of the campaigns started by the likes of the Daily Mail have been in the past however the influence currently exerted by the likes of Stephen Fry make that a dubious distinction. Furthermore given the nature of the net to be spammed then we are bound to see orchestrated campaigns in the not too distant future, maybe it has already happened and we are blissfully unaware. In fact the recent deals between Twitter and Google/Bing mean that Social Media Optimisation is now with us.

    I think that there is a solution to this and that it could be the future that the media has been struggling to locate.

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  9. Because of the speed, Twitter is the vanguard but many services *can* have this effect. One thing I’d like to know is how many views Moir’s article recieved on the Daily Mail website – and compare the percentage of views of the article to the comments *about* the article.

    Herd mentality existed before the internet, and I suspect part of this result in a new tool is down to a very old pack instinct to follow people you want to like you.

    No answers or ideas here, just a point. I do agree though, what do you do when you no longer have time as an inhibitor on the real time web?

  10. I *like* the power of Twitter and online protest. The rapid response to the Trafigura super-injunction imposed on the Guardian was powerful proof that the old way of doing things is gone forever. No more waiting years for real change, tugging forelocks and doffing caps while hoping the powers that be bestow their benevolence.

    Why does there have to be “responsibility”? This has echoes of Moir’s protest about an “organised, malicious campaign” against her. I see nothing wrong with people rising up spontaneously and making themselves heard when they see or hear something is very wrong. If there was to be “responsibility” we’d still have the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. People power can be an incredible force for good.

    Obviously it’s right to be concerned that mass action might have a severe negative effect. I have no answers. But frankly, in the case of such appallingly sloppy journalism as that produced by Jan Moir – an article containing untrue facts, malicious speculation and certain to cause immense distress and pain to the deceased’s family (more so given there hadn’t yet been a funeral) because it transgressed so many clauses of the PCC code of practice – too bad if there’s a severe negative effect. Moir was lucky to get off as lightly as she did.

    As we’re talking about the media, I think it’s crucial the media – its component parts at least – remember that they are under scrutiny now in a manner not previously possible. Social tools have given us a way to express distaste, anger, disgust, quickly and collectively. In the past, perhaps only a few people might have written to the letters page or complained to their MP. And while we’re talking about “responsibility”, the media has to exercise it too. The responsibility of the press is to get it right the first time. Otherwise, the Daily Mails and Jan Moirs can rightly expect to see more spontaneous outbreaks on Twitter and the like.

  11. The Twitter crowd are a fairly well-mannered and polite bunch, but the same organisational patterns appear in other social networks. There are YouTube videos with thousands of hateful and aggressive comments and I can only wonder what happens to their authors when they are confronted with such bile, especially because so many YouTubers are teenagers — an emotionally unstable age at the best of times.

    However I have to agree with Louise that if we were all about “responsibility” I probably wouldn’t be writing comments on an “Imperialist’s” blog right now.

    People power, both on and offline, can be an incredible force for good or a terrible force for evil (lynch mobs come to mind). But if you want to control the dark side of it to make it safer, you will also have to accept that you are leaving it powerless on the do-good front at the same time.

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  13. I guess one problem with an apology issued in response to a collective groundswell of public opinion is that it can be done for the form of the thing, as a damage limitation option, rather than as a result of that person coming to the conclusion that they did indeed act wrongly.
    I’m thinking of Kelvin McKenzie’s shameful, empty apology to the Hillsborough families, issued on the instruction of Rupert Murdoch, which he later admitted he didn’t mean in the slightest.
    Does Jan Moir really feel sorry? I doubt it; I expect she feels humiliated, victimised and angry, and her private view is probably even more firmly entrenched than it was.
    That said, I had no problem with her being so publicly criticised for an odious opinon piece. With regards to AA Gill, I’d bet he’s absolutely delighted with the furore he stirred up; it would have probably been more hurtful to his ego and brand if everyone had just ignored the article.

  14. I feel very much like you, and I can’t really explain why either.

    I think it’s sentiments like “Moir was lucky to get off as lightly as she did” that worry me. What are we saying should have happened to her?

    Being part of a mob, anonymously, means people feel the freedom to abandon responsibility for their actions. They say things they’d never say face-to-face.

    If we believe in free speech then aren’t Jan Moir (and AA Gill for that matter) entitled to say what they like? And if it transpires that either of them broke the law then they’re “punishable” by the legal system that we all agree to live by.

    We can’t support Twitter mobs attacking this person (Jan Moir) but not that person (brumplum, for example) – because we’re only making that distinction based on what we personally believe – saying the end justifying the means.

    We just have to hope that posts like this will make people think about the issue – and maybe next time they WILL feel some responsibility for whatever it is they’re advocating.

    We can’t stop it. We can only hope that the online community will self police and we never have an angry-mob-gone-wrong moment.

  15. Hi Jo. I have always shared that same unease about online protests, and like you haven’t always been able to articulate why – even to myself.

    I think your point about the fact that the ‘voice of Twitter’ is actually the voice, by and large, of the digitally-engaged members of a particular socio-economic group goes part way to explaining this, however. It’s not really a wonderul, democratic ‘voice of the people’ tool at the moment because not all of ‘the people’ are on it. Perhaps it has the potential to be, but at the moment it’s not the case.

    I also wonder if there’s something about the ease of this medium for public mud-slinging. We meet people every day whose views we don’t necessarily agree with, but we don’t tend to start personally attacking them. There’s something a bit more detached about the internet that can make it easier to be harsh or abrupt. When that is repeated thousands of times, I think that’s when it gets difficult. For example, Moir’s article about Stephen Gately was badly thought out, homophobic, insensitive and insinuating. But once someone, or even a couple of people have pointed that out, does it need to be constantly repeated? I didn’t agree with her article, but I didn’t feel the need to jump on the mud-slinging band wagon, because, frankly, the points I would have made had already been made a thousand times.

    There’s something more here about mob mentality and who decides what is OK to say and do but I’ve not figured that out yet …

  16. What I meant by “Moir was lucky to get off as lightly as she did” is that she only had to face the online groundswell of disgust. She’s not going to get the sack, is she, when her boss is chair of the PCC? Nor is the Daily Mail going to face censure, for the same reason. In an ideal world, that column would never have been published.

    My comment about Moir was made purely from an industry point of view and not from any other. Apologies if that was not clear.

  17. This debate gets so easily dragged into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the actual events that occurred and the legitimacy of the complaints that were made. As I’ve mentioned before, I have little sympathy for those whom the spotlight recently shone upon.

    @Sam: When you talk about the legal system “that we agree to live by”, I think you get very close to the nub of issue for me.

    The action and the reaction involved in these events shows, I think, our society hasn’t figured out how to deal with effects of distributed communication yet. We haven’t agreed any rules of engagement, we’re using ones that evolved to cope with different mediums and a different era.

    There seem to be so many questions:

    How much credence should we be giving to such protests? How much influence should distributed group actions have over others? What about protests on different platforms? How much personal responsibility should we take for being part of such protests? What redress (if any) should those who are unjustly wronged have?

    This is really Clay Shirky’s area of expertise.

    My feeling is that online protests are not democracy, they are examples of groups of individuals using a new and interesting tool in the democratic process and making their protests known.

    In many respects this is a superior tool for democracy than traditional mass communication as a greater number of individual voices can be heard. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suffer from some of the same bad points.

    We despise “the media” when it hounds those who turn out to be innocent or when it is not in the public interest. Society puts laws and codes in place to try to regulate that sort of action. Indeed, we applaud our legal institutions when a news organisation is successfully sued for breaking such laws.

    Why do we think users of Twitter, or Facebook, or any online communication tool are not capable of doing exactly the same hounding? The difficulty is when the culpability is so dispersed, how does society deal with its effects?

  18. The baying mob is the baying mob, whether on the streets or on-line. Sometimes, the baying mob has right on its side; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, people get hurt, either by the mob itself or by the backlash that the mob leaves in its wake.

  19. What intersting commenst so far and don’t want to repeat things already ready well expressed so just one point. Twitter, Fbook et al have allowed us all the means to react easily and efficiently but that doesn’t mean the end result is the same. I would say the flash of anger over Moir started as just that, a flashpoint, and then moved on to seek some form of action out of a sense of group indignation but that is an entirely different thing to a lobby group using social media tools in a thought out way to campaign for change of some sort. I found Tom Watson’s book Causewired something of an education in this as he highlights real cases where the simple act of joining a Fbook group was just part of complex mobilised campaigns.
    The tools can be used for both campaigning and expression but, just because the same tools are used, doesn’t make both activties become the same thing and participants need to understand which activity they become involved with.

  20. I write this with extreme trepidation and it is for this reason that I want to make the following clear from the start:

    I personally certainly DO condone the opinions or actions of Jan Moir and AA Gill.

    Got it? Good. Right

    Moir simply asked some questions that no one else dared ask. Gill only did much the same sort of thing as Ernest Hemingway, both in his actions and in brilliant writing. And I think Nick Griffin is an OK sort of bloke (the kind of guy I enjoy having a pint with or taking a taxi ride from).

    In fact, I praise them all for braving to take a stand. And I’m NOT going to tell you more about what my private thoughts are about them. You shouldn’t think you have a personal, secret window into my soul.

    The problem is that everyone who tries to oppose ‘Twittermobbing’ is going to nervously try to distance themselves from the person they are defending.

    Balls to that. If one think twittermobbing is wrong, one shouldn’t have to qualify it with weasel-y get-outs.

  21. @Andrew You have a point. Whatever my own personal views I defend the right to freedom of speech.

    Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned my own view. The reason I put that caveat at the beginning is that, when I first wrote this post, emotions were still running high about both these issues. Understanding that most people who read my blog know I work in mainstream media, I (maybe wrongly) assumed that people would think I was trying to attack those who criticised Moir and Gill.

    I hoped by adding that caveat people wouldn’t get the wrong end of the stick and assume that the post was about defending or denouncing those involved. Or, indeed, denouncing online protest. (Uneasiness is on a different level to saying something is wrong, don’t you think?)

    It was actually about none of the above. It was about exploring my own feelings about online protest as a new influence on society. I wanted to understand my response to it and didn’t feel just labelling it right or wrong was appropriate.

    Unfortunately it seems I didn’t put that across clearly enough.

  22. *Sigh* I am a bit fed up with this being spun as a mob’, or an anti-free-speech thing. It’s simply not accurate. I’m particualry sick of people in the MSM making out that

    ‘The appearance of collective action is remarkably easy online, with many individuals able to contribute in small ways (a retweet, joining a Facebook group, writing a short blog post). But this also means responsibility for this action is fragmented…’

    Twitter was just one part of this. Please look at the facts.

    25,000 people *complained to the PCC*.

    Some of them were alerted by Twitter, others alerted by Facebook status updates expressing horror at the article from FB friends, others read the article at source and googled ”how to complain about an article”.

    They bothered to complain to the PCC because – and this is significant – they thought that Moir’s article had breached the PCC’s Editor’s Code which the Mail has voluntarily signed up to and agreed to abide by. What is the point of having a code is it is breached and ignored? Why is this, as some MSM commentators have tried to say ‘an attack on free speech’? Is a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority an attack on free speech? Is a complaint to OfCom an attack on free speech? So why is this, please?

    What else are people to do if they think an article has breached the Code – in ergard to accuracy, intrusion and discrimination? The Mail has no reader’s editor to direct concern to and answer complaints in public; writing to the Mail gets you an automatically generated email, as does writing to Dacre, as does writing to Moir. So people wrote to the PCC to complain, as they are properly supposed to do – and then they soon found out it is a toothless body, and Paul Dacre sits on the PCC standards committee!

    What else to do? Using their initiative, people also began to contact the advertisers on the page, all of whom were easy enough to look up contact details for – and spoke to their press officers and media buying departments and said, look, do you really want your brand next to this kind of homophobic content? How do I know this? Because I was doing it by 9.40am the day the article came out and so were my friends. Via a message board as it happens, none of us are on Twitter.

    And the advertisers thanked us for alerting them, and took immediate steps, after having read Moir’s piece, to get their ads away from the foul piece. I know this because I personally spoke to P&G, M&S, and Nestle the morning Moir’s piece came out. Then I complained to the PCC and joined a Facebook group where people where sharing advertiser info and explaining how to complain to each other.

    To complain to the PCC you have to give your name, address and contact details and fill out a lengthy form explaining – with quotes and links – exactly where the article has breached the PCC’s Code.

    So you have to read both the Code – which is several hundred words – and the article again – which is also several hundred words – and then go to the bother of filling in the form, with your real name and details – in order to make a complaint.

    That is not anonymous.
    That is not mindless, or quick, or easy.
    That is not a ‘mob’.
    Nor is it an attack on free speech.

    Nor did anyone turn up outside Moir’s house with pitchforks, ffs.

    It makes me really, really angry to see this canard being wheeled about in the MSM – that complaint is just a click away, that the article wasn’t even read properly, that it’s easy to complain but hard to take responsibility, that it was orchestrated, that it was organised, that it was a ‘lobby’. Bollocks.

    Go and look at the damn form for yourselves if you want. Go and look at how much of a hassle the process is.
    http://www.pcc.org.uk/complaints/process.html

    And just to prove the point, traffic to the Moir page went up 22%. The idea that people just leapt anonymously on a bandwagon and formed an anonymous mob is stupid, and wrong, and misrepresentative.

    I’m not particularly having a go at the author of the blog here, but my goodness, after a week of pontificating from the MSM commentators who seem to have accepted this canard without bothering to check the facts, I am really fed up. You still don’t get it, a lot of you.

  23. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks so much for your post. I am grateful to you for taking the time to post so eloquently about the response to Jan Moir’s article.

    I also agree with you that to say that people leapt anonymously on a bandwagon and formed an anonymous mob is not a helpful thing to say. I hope you don’t mind me pointing out that I did not use the word “mob” in my post or my subsequent comments. “Mob” is an emotive word. I don’t think it’s appropriate either and I think what happened is far more interesting and sophisticated than some people would like to paint it.

    I also agree with you that Jan Moir has a case to answer with the PCC (specifically with regards to Section 12 of the code). At the very beginning of my post I hope I made it clear I wasn’t defending her.

    What I wanted to understand was, looking beyond the offending articles in this instance, what is this form of action that we now have? What are its implications? Why, when I can see all the fantastic benefits of it, do I also have a sense of unease about it? I think unease usually comes from a lack of understanding, hence the point of this post – to ask others to help me understand this better.

    I am in the mainstream media and I know I’m not going to get away from the labels that is likely to place upon me. I understand it might seem that I’m trying to belittle the response. I don’t know how I convince you that isn’t the case and that, truly, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

    What’s interesting here is that you’re right, it wasn’t organised action, not in the traditional sense. It was the action of lots of different individuals using different platforms and coming across the article in different ways. Yet the end result closely resembled what we would have once described as organised action.

    This is new. Once upon a time it just wouldn’t have been possible for 25,000 people all acting as individuals to protest to an organisation about the same issue all within 24 hours.

    It’s an incredible, wonderful, powerful thing. It is also a bit of a scary thing. What makes it scary is something I want to understand better.

  24. @ Rachel

    You said: “Nor did anyone turn up outside Moir’s house with pitchforks, ffs.”

    Also not defending Moir, but does that make the reaction any less intimidating? What if Jan Moir had been a coimplete innocent who had her reputation trashed? Would she feel better that it had been done online rather than by people shouting outside her house? In fact, the former can lead to the latter in any case.

    My Chambers dictionary lists one of the definitions of “mob” as: “ordinary people; the masses”. This is exactly what this was, a group of individuals who coalesced for a single purpose, and then disbanded, having achieved their aim. It is the online version of of taking to the streets, and can have even more far-reaching consequences, because of how wide the net can be spread, and because it can be done from the comfort of your own home, at very little personal risk. Mobs are not by definition anonymous. Unless you mask your face when you take to the streets, you can be recognised. It’s actually easier to hide your identity on-line.

    I agree that this was in no way anti-free speech or any of the other nonsense that is being bandied about. But I think it makes sense to look at the parallels between how the masses react on-line and off-line, how and why these coalitions come about, and whether the fact that being on-line dramatically changes the dynamics of protest. And if it does, how do we stop real abuses and innocent people being victimised because, say, someone starts circulating on line that the local paediatrician is a paedophile because they don’t know the difference between the two?

  25. It would be reassuring to know that mechanisms are in place to take twitter down very quickly if some extensively retweeted story is liable to cause extreme harm.

    I have had a number of direct messages from hacked ids. If the hackers could get into reputable and trusted, much followed accounts a real large scale tragedy could ensue.

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  27. @Ewan: The Mail’s hits went up 21% off the back of the Jan Moir article. The site gets around 30m hits every month, so that 21% is worth at least 6.3m hits. It’s impossible to say how many of those were just the Jan Moir piece but it’s safe to say it’s in the millions. I half-suspect that one reason they took advertising off that page was to speed up load time and the pressure on servers – a common thing to do when a major ‘event’ breaks

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