How social media changed protest

 

Over the past month, many parts of the UK have witnessed student-led protests against tuition fees and the end of grants in further education.

On television, the scenes have looked like a typical demonstration: people standing around in the cold waving placards while police run around after trouble-makers. But what's beyond doubt is that social media has played an important role in the anti-cuts demonstrations, but is it changing the nature of modern protest?

From pamphlets to hashtags

Stage one: Agitation and radicalisation
Protesters are removed by police in Birmingham

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Every cause starts with someone arguing in its favour. During the aftermath of the English Civil War, "Freeborn John" Lilburne pushed his luck with Oliver Cromwell, who he had once stood alongside, by demanding liberty and votes for all. He ended up rotting in jail - but his agitation strategy was the model for every radical who followed, right up to Tony Benn. Lilburne produced provocative pamphlets and toured the country, giving public talks.

The more he talked, the more people he gathered to his cause. The process was painfully slow - but ideas took root and lasted long after his death.

Over the years, the pamphleteering became easier, thanks to more efficient printing and the invention of photocopying machinery in the 20th Century. But radicalisation still required that personal touch - the impassioned speech and the feeling that something must be done.

What Freeborn John would make of the recent UK Uncut flash mobs we'll never know. The anti tax-avoidance campaign group began as a pub discussion and has since disrupted trading at High Street chain stores they claim are not paying their fair share.

But UK Uncut's rapid growth - in a matter of weeks - is partly down to the founders' ability to spread ideas online, particularly through the Twitter hashtag #ukuncut. People looking for news on cuts picked up on the hashtag and added it to their own tweets. It now has about 8,500 online followers.

What's different is that UK Uncut hasn't been sending people around the UK to perform Speakers' Corner style recruitment exercises.

The two protests with the highest impact last weekend - in Brighton and London - were "flash mobs" including many people who had probably never spoken to others before, let alone been in the same room.

Stage two: Organisation and protesting

Jarrow Crusade

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Traditional protesting needs clear leadership and an organisation of such.

Think of the Jarrow Crusade against poverty in 1936 or the Countryside Alliance's vast demonstration in London against the fox hunting ban.

There were figureheads and organisers - such as union leaders or high profile speakers.

The 2003 Stop the War march meandered through London to a stage in Hyde Park where notable speakers took the microphone and the crowd clapped and cheered.

Traditional protest involves talks with the police to agree routes and how to marshal a crowd.

If trouble comes, it's often quite clear that it has nothing to do with the organisers who are swift to condemn and disown those involved.

Student protests also have leaders and organised marches. But there are now also "networked" players, says tweeting student Aaron Peters, an active participant in London's demos. Peters, researching political protest, says "Dissent Entrepreneurs" use social media tools to create unpredictable events. In the hours before Thursday's education vote, tweets promoted a map of proposed flash mob locations, but without expressing a preferred target. London's 2001 anti-globalisation protests unsuccessfully tried the same trick before being contained by the police. But the immediacy and scale of social media tools on smart phones changes things, argues Aaron Peters.

"If someone asks us how many people are turning out, or what they will do, we don't know - because we can't know what's not knowable."

Stage three: Law and order

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All police officers in England and Wales are given public order training - typically at the Met's riot training centre, a fake town that looks a little like a Hollywood set for a film about the breakdown of civilisation.

For years they've been taught how to contain trouble makers and to marshall crowds, tutors reminding them that in the UK policing is "by consent".

So, organised demonstrations had good relations with officers - but chaotic protests would often end in police and angry young men clashing.

There have always been claims of excessive police tactics - but very few of them ever reach the point where they are substantiated.

The facts about the controversial death of Blair Peach, during clashes with police in 1979, only saw the light of day 30 years later.

The death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 in 2009 has led to searching questions in the police over how to deal with modern protests - not least because of the level of scrutiny via mobile phone footage.

Police chiefs are finalising their new guidance on public order - but it will include advice on the role of social media. Some forces are already using it. West Midlands Police say they used it to counter unfounded rumours that young Muslims were planning to clash with the far-right England Defence League.

Sussex Police also used Twitter to swiftly rebut accusations that officers were armed with Tasers during the UK Uncut demo last week. Both forces think social media is helping officers engage with a more diverse range of people - including hardcore protesters who would never talk to a copper on the street.

Stage four: The headlines

Students occupation at University College London

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In the olden days, there would be a newspaper reporter who'd produce a sober assessment of events for the next morning, with quotes from the main speakers and contributions and reaction from the police and politicians.

Some protesters would be left fuming when their entire day out was reduced by the editor to a picture of two attractive young women carrying a banner with a caption underneath saying how many marched.

If things turned ugly, then the story naturally shifted on to the violence and the response to it. The actual reason for the protest may have been drowned out.

Things changed in 1999 with the launch of Indymedia, its mission to get ordinary people to report events it claimed the mainstream media failed to cover.

But Indymedia has been eclipsed by the rise of the mobile smart phone and a plethora of tools like Flickr, blogs and social bookmarking sites.

This week, at University College London, students (pictured above) built a "mash-up" website that has been collating and disseminating thousands of items of information about the protests and occupations around the country. "Everyone is a potential collaborator in a massive act of crowd sourcing," says Sam, one of the UCL programmers.

Stage five: The cultural fall-out

The Specials

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Protest songs have long been a part of politics.

Slaves sang of freedom in the American cotton fields.

Bob Dylan took to the recording studio to capture a decade's mood with The Times are a Changin'.

The Specials (above) told the UK what they thought of Margaret Thatcher with Ghost Town - and Phil Collins raged against homelessness with Another Day in Paradise.

Back in the day, it took weeks to turn a song into a hit, because of studio time, mastering, production and distribution. And with a whole list of people taking a cut of the profits along the way, it was never a good means to try to bring down capitalism.

What's more, it took months if not years for the song to be recognised as the one that really defined the times.

"Captain Ska" is after Bob Dylan's crown with his anti-cuts tune, "Liar Liar." He got angry about the state of the nation, recorded his song and then he uploaded it to YouTube. And then it took off.

"I've been overwhelmed by the response on the net," he told the BBC. "It's been played at protests and when comedian Mark Thomas tweeted it, the numbers shot up. That all led to people saying I should release it for Christmas so it goes on sale on 12 December.

"I don't need to release a physical CD. I just place it with the digital sellers."

Is he releasing this way to boost his profits as a snub to the corporate suits?

"No it's all going to charity. I reckon I need to sell half a million to beat Simon Cowell and the X-Factor - you never know, anything might happen."

 

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