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.

Battle of the Beanfield: notes on the 25th anniversary of a British atrocity

**WARNING: This post only makes passing reference to the Internet and social media in the context of politics and history**

With the summer solstice occurring earlier this week I wanted to write a post about the 25th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield that happened earlier this month.

This is all the more important given the complete lack of coverage the anniversary has received in the mainstream media and the fact that the legacy of what happened on the day can still be felt and in fact set the tone for the type of society in which we now live.

On the 1st June 1985 a convoy of people living on the road and summer festival party goers were making preparations to head to Stonehenge in time to set up the annual Stonehenge Free Festival ahead of the solstice.

As they headed off the road was blocked by Wiltshire Police who tipped three tons of gravel in the way, forcing the convoy into a field of beans.

What unfolded was possibly the worst incident of policy brutality seen in recent times, as some of the shots from the documentary Operation Solstice below shows.

The events of that afternoon was so atrocious that ITN’s Kim Sabido who as at the scene recorded a piece to camera in which he reported:

“What I have seen in the last thirty minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted. There must surely be an enquiry after what has happened today.”

Unfortunately Kim’s voice-over was removed on the evening new bulletin along with the worst footage of police violence. The raw footage also went “missing” shortly after broadcast.

This wasn’t a one off either. The Observer’s photographer Ben Gibson was arrested on charges of “obstruction” and removed from the site while freelance photographer Tim Malyon was simply chased from the scene by police.

The negatives of the images Gibson managed to shoot were also “lost” in an office move.


I am still shocked by the events of 25 years ago. Partly by the raw violence of the Police, but also by the reminder of the lengths that the State, working with the government, will go to in order to destroy the lives of marginal groups.
Because let’s get this straight.

This wasn’t just random or opportunistic violence against ‘hippies’. The actions of that afternoon systematically destroyed people’s homes, their livelihood and chances of continuing their existence on they were released from prison or hospital.

The strategy was also to prevent the media from reporting what was happening and silence or smear anyone who dared to speak out against the State’s actions.
Lord Cardigan, who owned land nearby, testified in a court case against the Police brought by 21 travellers for wrongful arrest, criminal damage and assault.

Following his appearance as witness, the UK’s press ran smear stories against him as an unreliable witness – The Times calling him “barking mad”.
Although he took legal action against The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror for their attacks on him, and received written apologies and damages from each it was too little too late – especially in an age when the media permanence of Google and linking didn’t exist.

In the end, the defendants won their case but the judge refused to award costs meaning that their victory was Pyrrhic: all defendants had to use their compensation to pay back the court costs.

Now isn’t the time to go into the wider socio-political issues of why the British State and government felt threatened by the alternative ways of life during the late 1970s and 1980s (although a snapshot of events is evoked in a first-hand account here) but what happened in that Beanfield in Wiltshire echoes through the intervening years to resonate in 2010.

Unlike the highly visible and predicted violence and media tactics of the police at the G20 this was a concerted and successful effort to target – or more accurately, “decommission”, to use the police description – a way of life of a significant proportion of the UK’s population.

To drag this issue back to the Internet in a way that isn’t crass or trivialises the enormity of events, a reasonable question is would the state have attempted such a tactic knowing it couldn’t control the creation and distribution of media content in a way seen during the G20?

In short: probably. Despite the notion that citizen journalism can hold power and authority to account the reality is that the exposure of abuses of power depend fundamentally on whether the use of power is deemed an abuse. Or more simply whether what happens is seen as justice, rather than injustice.

This idea was addressed comprehensively and concisely by blogger and author, Cory Doctorow, last year when he explored the abuse of police powers at the 2008 Climate Camp at Kingsnorth Power Station.

Writing candidly, Doctorow argues that the transparency wrought by social media
on its own is nothing more than spectacle: it’s just another season of Big Brother in which all the contestants are revealed, over and over again, as thugs.”

Worse, the ability we now have to shine a spotlight onto the dark corners of power and authority compounds the situation in which we find ourselves.

Transparency on its own,” concludes Doctorow “robs as much hope as it delivers, because transparency without justice is a perennial reminder that the game is rigged and that those in power govern for power’s sake, not for justice.

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.

Labour’s iPhone app mobilising supporters

Mzl.edgauvsh.320x480-75 There’s a great blog post from Stuart Bruce about Labour’s iPhone app that serves as a timely reminder that new media and the Internet isn’t primarily about ‘social meeja’.

Stuart’s post come as uber-Tory blogger Iain Dale writes in the Telegraph that this so-called Internet election isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Of course, it was largely the media that set the standards for the ‘Internet election’ and Iain’s blog post seems to argue that because candidates aren’t blogging and Twitter is "useless as a campaigning tool" then the digital election is a failure. But let's not forget it's also meant to be the Mumsnet election as well but everyone seems to have forgotten that already.

As a timely rebuttal, Stuart observes that when it comes to creating virtual networks of activists, then the Internet is doing a great job, thank you very much.

In fact, many political activists I know argue that what really matters at an election is  feet on doorsteps, canvassing phonecalls and ultimately crosses on ballot papers.

And let’s face it, until we have some concrete evidence to prove otherwise it's widely accepted Twitter or Facebook aren’t necessarily going to deliver these – although that’s not to say they don't have other important roles to play too.

And this is the mistake the media and many others in the PR world seem to make. They look to Obama and say: "it’s social media wot won it" and make the logical progression that we aren’t seeing that campaign replicated in the UK in 2010.

Those in the know, however, are acutely aware that it wasn’t social media wot won it for Obama but rather email marketing. Obama’s team judiciously used huge volumes of targeted data to motivate voters ahead of polling day and mobilise them on polling stations.

Data protection laws differ in the US from the UK and while no UK political party yet seems able to replicate Obama’s email campaign, Stuart runs through some of the successes Labour has been having with it’s iPhone app in identifying and mobilizing voters.

The app has been designed and built using feedback form grassroots activists and is packed with functionality that empowers people to get out on the doorstep, make phone calls and attend events.

Specific features allow users to access the Labour manifesto in text or video format, use GPS to locate party campaigning events happening near them, read Labour Party tweets, call and canvas people using Labour's virtual Phonebank tool (crucially, it this works within the UK's data protection legislation – something the Tories failed to take into account recently).

In fact, the app is so good, even the acerbic Popbitch gives it the following praise:

“The ‘Inside the Campaign’ section is, surprisingly, not mind numbingly dull.”

Stuart tells us that Labour’s learning is: “if you want to mobilise large numbers of people in a network to do things for you then you need to involve them.”

And on that point he couldn’t be more right.

Mumsnet election: an analysis

The following was posted as a guest post at Royal Holloway University's New Political Communications Unit blog.

Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet,
spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and
provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital
campaigning and organisational structures.

Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front
of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional
than first thought.

Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier
to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter
is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with
inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to
manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.

You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election
the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks
meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.

Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
The
answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that
Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive
readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and
self-organisation.

Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue
campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members
had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the
childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live
webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.

Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging
the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being
exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.

What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that
while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it
certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way
organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.

This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a
peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more
traditional news portal for even more.  I couldn't help wondering about
the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.

Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet.
Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that
party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties.
Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to
infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right
agenda.

While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational
hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as
reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within
the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece
for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”

MyDavidCameron: some post event analyses

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With the buzz about the remixed Conservative Party election posters and Clifford Singer’s MyDavidCameron website a few days old I thought I’d reflect on the debate and offer up some analysis about what might be going on here and what it means for political parties ahead of the election.

But before I can do that I need to jump back to September last year when I discussed Manuel Castell’s theory of networked power and suggested how it could be applied to the UK’s political blogosphere.

In a nutshell, Castells argues that power in networks is fundamentally about the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This can be achieved by one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.

I argued that Conservative and right-wing blogs were successful because they had programmed the UK’s political network by a) adapting early and b) creating a broad anti-government debate which resonated with the media and wider public.

This meant that left and liberal bloggers had to find common issues and threads with each other and the public with which to try and switch the dominant power in the network away from anti-government/right-wing debate.

So what does this tell us about the MyDavidCameron success? Firstly, I think it supports my original hypothesis. That is, Labour have identified a wider – albeit smaller – network outside of the UK political blogosphere with a shared value (mocking David Cameron/the Conservatives and graphic design).

They are then co-opting this network, forming a strategic partnership but letting the idea and content go where it goes, as opposed to trying to centrally plan and control what happens with the David Cameron imagery.

In my opinion, a political party having the foresight and ability to spot an opportunity like this and use it to help try to ‘switch’ the dominant discourse in the political blogosphere is smart.

Yes, there may be those that say: “well, who wouldn’t jump on an opportunity if it arose?” But I’d argue that the traditional approach to this kind of online meme would be to try and own it: take it in-house.*

I think Labour have deliberately avoided doing this, having learnt the lesson from last summer’s #Welovethenhs grassroot campaign that which Labour co-opted, arguably tried to centralise and quickly destroyed the value in the network. Compare how they're currently using a Labour Party version of MyDavidCameron (i.e. becoming another node in the network) versus their mini-campaign site for #Welovethenhs which argubly tries to own the decentralised campaign network.

But thinking logically about the MyDavidCameron campaign: would Labour seeking to ‘own’ the network really kill it in the same way that it killed #Welovethenhs?

I’m not so sure for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, the #Welovethenhs campaign was not a pro-government campaign; nor was it an anti-tory campaign. It was a pro-public healthcare system campaign. It’s an issue that traditionally has a shared value for with liberal/left networks but not solely. Labour arguably killed this campaign as it tried to go further than switching and instead reprogram the networks’ values as pro-government/pro-Labour.
  2. Secondly, network alignment based on shared opposition to David Cameron and/or the Conservatives is one thing, but the reality is that only Labour can defeat the Conservatives at an election. Therefore, Labour trying to reprogram the goal of the networks driving the MyDavidCameron campaign to be pro-Labour is actually a smart move.

What this says to me is that now we’re entering the run up to an election, the political discourse is no longer split broadly between anti-government/right-wing ideology and pro-Government goals (that were largely indistinguishable form Labour policy).

Instead, Labour is starting to reprogram the UK’s political networks through creating a discourse of Conservatives vs Labour. It’s early days and the Conservatives still have the upper hand but I’d argue that the MyDavidCameron campaign plus the recent emergence of distinct left and Labour-aligned voices is starting to re-balance the pro-right-wing goals of the UK’s political networks.

Footnote:
* What this reveals is Labour’s ability to switch between a traditional command and control political party and a node in a fluid, participative network. Something Andrew Chadwick has defined as “organisational hybridity” – the internet driven phenomena that enables organisations and institutions to switch between being member-led hierarchical institutions, single-issue campaign groups or temporary, loosely joined networks of like-minded individuals. I believe this is what political parties of the future will look like: political parties in all but name, But that’s something for another post.