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?