Student protests, communication power and undercover police

I’ve been burying my head in books of late trying to map out my first PhD chapter. This has meant some fairly extensive reading around the subject of power.

It’s fair to say that most scholars agree that power can be exerted through two complementary mechanics: violence (i.e. physical force) and discourse/communication (i.e. coercion, influence, etc).

So it was interesting to be on Whitehall last Wednesday during the student demo and to witness both mechanics in operation.

[Slideshow courtesy of ashleydmiddleton on Flickr]

I won’t major on the resultant media coverage (which, is something that could be discussed extensively in another post) but suffice to say that hindsight, the traditional media’s coverage was fairly standard reporting utilising the atypcial frames wheeled out for public disorder, (e.g. any violence is always the work of a “minority”; a false dichotomy is established between legitimate, peaceful protest and illegitimate, violent protest, largely unquestioning of police facts, press releases, etc – although to be fair, the latter is partly a problem with the formalised news production processes, than, say, undue influence).

But two things struck me as worth blogging about.

Firstly, I wanted to write down a personal encounter that got me thinking about the possible use of strategic policing tactics that were potentially used to manipulate the outcome of events and the subsequent media representation of the day.

Shortly after the kettle formed – and it was inevitable from the minute the march arrived at Parliament Square that it would be kettled – I was stood behind the police line when I witnessed a short man dressed in black, with a black hat (or possbly balaclava pulled up onto his head) be ushered through the police line after flashing something small and white resembling an ID card from a retractable lanyard at his waist.

He then disappeared between several police vans parked near the police line.

Now far be it from me to suggest that the police were using the same tactics as were used during the G20 protests when it was revealed that undercover or plain clothes police were being used as agents provocateurs, but the similarities between this scenario and the G20 struck me as a possibility.

Of course, it is apparently standard procedure to sue undercover police to gather intelligence at demonstrations but it would interesting to scour the footage of the first people to start trashing the controversial police van, allegedly planted as bait for riot porn, to see whether the same person was involved.

The second thing worth mentioning is that while a lot of people present on Wednesday were confident the van *had* been left as bait (similar tactics were possibly used during the already mentioned G20 protests when the only building left unprotected by horading was a branch of RBS, then the UK’s most hated bank) most presumed that this angle to the story would not make mainstream news reports.

But in that assumption they were only half right. While the story didn’t make any main bulletin,  Sky News’ Frontline blog comes right out and asks the question whether the van was intentionally planted.

What’s interesting to me is that here is a classic example of professional journalists using informal, social media platforms to publish stories not deemed sufficiently news-worthy to make the headlines – or at least mainstream headlines. Not only that, but this story actually challenges the dominant media narrative based on ‘official’ reporting of events.

So, what are the conclusions and implications here? I’m not entirely sure really. But it’s worth considering the argument that the police don’t just use communications strategies to best report what’s happening, but rather stage-manage events to shape the communcitive outcome.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while big new outlets remain dominant in shaping the agenda, social media not only provides (potentially mutiple) counter-arguments it seems that this counter-voice can also come from within media corporations.

I guess this latter point seems like common sense, but it’s always nice to spot and note a case study.

Activism, Clicktivism and the limits of social media in achieving social change

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' – a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.

Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.

However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.

Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.

First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.

And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.

Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world – especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid – and somewhat pointless – detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.

Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as  campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.

However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.

Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host – purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.

As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.

So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.

Coalition Government to introduce epetitions that will influence parliamentary debate

It's been a short while since my last post, and in that time we've acquired a new Conservative-Lib Dem government.  So what better way to get back back to blogging than drawing attention to an interesting piece of Conservative policy that offers a major opportunity for campaigners (especially digitally active ones) to get their issue on the the government's agenda – and potentially have a real impact on legislation.

The policy in question is referenced in the Coalition's final Programme for Government in the section on Political Reform where it sets out the following commitment:

"We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be
eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most
signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to
be voted on in Parliament."

Pretty radical?

In essence it seems the government is committing to ensure that any petition over the magical 100,000 number will eligable for debate in Parliament.

Even more interesting is the secondary commitment to allow public petitions with the "most signatures" to also table bills. Now this second point is rather vague but I'm sure that I remember reading in Conservative policy documents during the election campaign outlined petitions with 1m signatures or more would be tabled as bills.

Two immediate thoughts spring to mind here.

The first, prompted by a Glen Tarman on the ecampaigning forum, covers the implications for campaigning groups – especially those effective at online mobilisation.

Glen argues that a "high-visibility impactful campaign is not always [...] correlative to the numbers game" and of course he's right. But he also points to recent examples where significant numbers of people have 'signed-up' to social change causes far in excess of the benchmark of 100,000 set by the current policy:

  • Jubilee 2000 petition – 2,960,262 UK signatures
  • Make Poverty History – 500,000 petition signatures (90% of signatures were online)
  • Trade Justice Movement – 750,000 signatures
  • Downing Street Road Tax epetition – 1.8m online signatures

And that's what I find interesting with the 100,000 (and possibly 1m) signatures benchmark. In the age of email, social media and social networking it really isn't too difficult (although it's not *easy* either) to mobilise significant volumes of people around an important issue.

As the list above shows, even less-mainstream aid issues can generate enough signatures to secure a parliamentary debate. Compare this with the infamous road tax epetition example or this England/World Cup Facebook Page which has generated 140,000+ Fans in 48 hours.

So what are the implications for professional campaigners? One the one hand the policy taps into our digitally networked age where online sign-ups and 'Likes' lower the barriers to taking part in social change movements and campaigns.

Conversely, it can be argued that this will enshrine a culture of 'slacktivism' in our political system which in turn may lead to a de-incentivising and disenfranchising of real-life action and its corollary, an increase in disproportionate policing and political prosecutions

While I'm not suggesting this is definitively the intention of the policy, it is – in my mind at least – a possible outcome. Of course, this may also have the opposite effect. Who can say yet.

The other implication of the policy worth considering is whether a distinction will be made between public petitions and NGO-driven petitions?

As well as the likelihood of generating different petition topics (e.g. international trade justice vs domestic road pricing) it's arguable that NGOs or professional campaigns are likely to consistently mobilise 100,000 signatories on 'progressive issues', as opposed to the weirder – or 'self-interested' as Glen more appropriately puts it – ones.

Any decisions around implementing the policy will need to factor in these issues if the initiative is to be seen as credibie – especially to a traditionally hostile media when it comes to anything remotely disintermediating and web-based.

It will be fascinating to see how this policy issue will develop and play out as it's clearly an integral part of the Conservative's plans for parliamentary reform that aims to put citizen
empowerment at its core, e.g. the web-based Public
Reading Stage
for new laws.

Add to this EU plans to introduce a similar petition policy and we could start see a radical political agenda that involves and enfranchises citizens at the core of democracy. But then that might open another debate as to who and how criteria for citizenship are constructed. But I'll save that for another blog post.