Welcome to the social web, a wonderful world of pure democracy where you and I are in charge. ‘Bottom up’ organisations where it is us, the masses, that make decisions for those up top. Grassroots campaigns through which you can fight huge faceless corporations. The modern web empowers us like never before to air our grievances, fight for what we think is right, and to save chocolate bars from a bygone age. It’s so easy; All you need is a computer, a susceptible mind, and an easily jerked knee.
The problem is, internet activism is so much easier than ‘real’ activism. It takes barely any effort to tick a box and register your support to a campaign, or to ‘retweet’ someone else’s observation or damning statement. Yet we’re supposed to consider the huge amount of statistics these polls, lists and virtual signatures amass to as worthy as a traditional march or picketing would have been. In the olden times, people really had to make an effort to stand up for things. Would a modern day Emily Pankhurst have really won the vote for women from a Facebook Group? Would Martin Luther King have had as much success in his fight for civil rights with a particularly memorable hashtag for his Twitter campaign?
Twitter is certainly the online campaigner’s service of choice right now, and the press are always keen to throw in anything gleaned from the site as a measure of the cultural zeitgeist. But isn’t a lot of this micro-moaning just a little predictable? As a quick scan through the Trending Topics on any given week shows, Twitter has a heavily liberal bias. Every week there’s some outrage about Sky News, Rupert Murdoch or Fox News. After a while campaigns just blur into one, and it’s hard to see the serious from the frivolous. Someone a bit racist, bigoted, homophobic, or just mental, has said something that’s quite rightly outraged a big chunk of people. And the big (organic, carbon-neutral) pitchfork wielding Twitter-mob descend upon those persons, sending around implicating quotes and feverishly typed quips, until they get some kind of apology.
But it’s very unlikely any of this virtual campaigning is ever actually going to take down some huge empire. The Daily Mail is going to continue to spout barely-masked racism for many years to come, because much of its readership are bare-faced racists. The opinion of a group of web-savvy campaigners isn’t really something they’re that concerned with. Most Daily Mail readers have been brainwashed to believe the Internet in general is evil anyway, and wouldn’t point their browser Twitter-wards for fear of catching cancer.
At some point all these continuous battles become ‘us vs them’, and a whole lump of the internet just becomes understood by non-users as simply a place for complaining. It belittles any real campaigns for things where there can be some kind of real world resolution. Why is it such a great idea for the masses to control how every little decision is made? We don’t research, we don’t gain a broad perspective around a subject. Instead we look for easy villains to blame, and take the moral high-ground. David Cameron talks about his ‘big society’ and how he’ll ask people how they want the country to be run on every detail. I give six months before we see public hanging brought back and Jeremy Clarkson elected as Supreme Leader.
Online campaigns all seem to follow a similar pattern. As online outrage grows, a cyber ‘chinese whisper’ takes place as quotes are linked and misquoted and sent out again around the internet. People get excited, and seem to enjoy the moral outrage and sense of being part of ‘something’ more than the effort they’re willing to make to find out if they’re right. It’s almost like they seem to find some kind of pleasure from the original offensive comment, as it gets to validate their want to be morally superior. The mob starts to notice it’s own size, which reinforces its conviction that it’s doing the right thing. The outrage officially becomes a ‘campaign’. Supported by the angry pack behind them, individuals start to act just as aggressively and amorally as those they’re fighting against.
Back when Jan Moir was being criticised for her piece implicating homosexuality as the cause for Stephen Gately’s death, she refused to own up and admit the nastiness of her article. Perhaps she felt slightly justified, and not at all apologetic, partly because of the similarly confusing morals of some of the campaigners who were attacking and calling her a ‘filthy slag’? A lot of people call this modern form of News-gathering ‘Citizen Journalism’. That would make us, the internet gatherers, the worst journalists known to man. Overly excitable and prone to suggestion from anyone we know and like, with a personal vested interest in anything we report, unwilling to accept any other point of view.
All this internet chat gives us is a vague measure of the levels of excitement on a subject. It’s just indicative of how much people are talking about something. Twenty years ago you wouldn’t gave taken the observation that a lot of people were moaning about work around the water-cooler as some indication that something had to be changed. But today a representative of that group might march up to the boss with a record of their chatter, demanding something is done. “8 whole people said 400 negative things about you, our boss, at 3.15 today! We demand you are fired!”
If Internet campaigning does have its place, it’s around the more frivolous aspects of society. A few years ago it was a Facebook campaign that brought back Wispas after all, and they’re absolutely delicious. We should perhaps leave it at that. Chocolate bars are about as much responsibility the internet protesters should be given. There’s no emotion involved, and nobody was trying to push their own biased agenda. The worst we could do is drop some of it on our clothes, or mistake it for poo.