Thursday, 17 November 2011

Who’s afraid of the EDL ‘clicktivists’?

Who’s afraid of the English Defence League (EDL) clicktivists? Well the police for a start, who decided to undertake a mass pre-emptive arrest of 179 EDL supporters, while they were drinking in a Westminster pub on Armistice Day, for supposedly planning an ‘attack’ on Occupy London protesters at St Paul’s. The police were tipped off by bloggers who had scoured the EDL’s Facebook posts for threatening remarks, and were apparently also assisted in the arrests by some Occupy London supporters, with the administrator of an Occupy London Facebook page boasting he played a role.

These arrests have rightly chilled civil liberties activists. As human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell tweeted at the time: ‘Democracies don’t arrest people who have committed no crime. EDL today, who next? Civil liberties are for all, even odious EDL.’ Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked, ‘it seems pretty clear that [EDL] supporters were arrested for committing a tweetcrime, the modern-day equivalent of Orwell’s thoughtcrime, where you’re nicked for what lurks inside your head rather than for anything you’ve done in the real world.’

Strikingly, this illiberal, anti-democratic crackdown on EDL protesters came less than a fortnight after the publication of the most extensive research into the EDL yet: one that reveals the EDL to largely be all tweets and no action.

The Demos report Inside the EDL: populist politics in a digital age, written by Jamie Bartlett and Mark Littler, finds that, in the words of Bartlett: ‘Most [EDL supporters] are keyboard warriors who limit themselves to sharing web links to stories and generally whipping themselves into a state of digital apoplexy.’ Bartlett goes further, claiming, ‘this is why, despite the noise and numbers, the group never mobilises more than a couple of thousand people – a scary sight if they advance on your town, but hardly sufficient to shake the nation’.

Indeed the report goes as far as to recommend that police scales down its presence at EDL demonstrations. As someone who has reported on numerous EDL demos, I can attest the police-to-protester ratio is staggering, with numbers of police often seemingly matching numbers of protesters. The report rightly advises that basing estimates of attendees on the number of people who say they will attend on Facebook – as anyone who’s ever organised any event using Facebook will know – is unwise. People post one thing and do another. Or often do nothing at all.

While they are by no means completely responsible, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media have certainly played the role of a catalyst in blurring the dividing line between the public and private spheres. As was evident from audience contributions at a Battle of Ideas satellite debate at the Brighton Salon earlier this month, some people treat Facebook as a place to put ideas out into the public domain, whereas others see it as place to have something akin to an informal pub chat. In fact, many see social media exchanges as being somewhere nebulous between the two.

Many things that get said on social media sites – regardless of content – are simply passing, half-baked thoughts that will never be acted upon. And so to treat them as if they were serious statements of criminal intent is deeply problematic. Take for example 27-year-old Paul Chambers who was arrested last year for jokily tweeting ‘Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!’ and then fined thousands of pounds by a humourless judge. Or young Welshman David Glyn who was sentenced to four months in jail for posting ‘Let’s start Bangor riots’ on Facebook, before thinking better of it and deleting the comment after 20 minutes.

This increasing conflation of the expression of an idea online with the decision to act upon this idea has both dangerous consequences for freedom of speech and also for personal liberty. While it is common sense to think before you post, if you also need to consider whether you may face arrest and/or criminal charges before saying what’s on your mind, the consequences for freedom of expression and for free exchanges of ideas are grave. Furthermore, it prevents situations from being resolved informally: David Glyn being told by his Facebook friends, for example, that he was stupid for posting such a comment about Bangor riots and should grow up.

Those who think it’s just ‘unruly’ types like the EDL who face censure or charges should heed Tatchell’s tweet: ‘EDL today, who next?’ After all, when banning the EDL’s planned march in Tower Hamlets earlier in the year, home secretary Theresa May didn’t stop there: she banned all groups and organisations from marching. And it’s a bit rich to – as some activists did – claim their ‘human rights’ are being violated, when they turned a deaf ear when the EDL were banned (or, worse, even actively campaigned for the ban). Though some might find it hard to accept, EDL supporters are human too.

Either we all have free speech (online or off) or none of us do: which is why I would call for all of us to adopt as a mantra a 2.0 version of Voltaire’s impassioned declaration: ‘I may disapprove of your status update, but I will defend to the death your right to post it.’

The independent

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