Can Twitter and the internet start a revolution?

Published in the London Evening Standard (December 7th, 2010)

It began over drinks in a pub in Islington. Friends in their twenties – teachers, students, voluntary sector workers – were discussing the cuts announced by Chancellor George Osborne a few days earlier. They argued that the poor were suffering for the failings of the rich, and debated what they could do to make their voices heard.

Similar scenes could have been found in pubs up and down the land. But these friends did more than just talk. They launched their own protest against tax avoidance and targeted Vodafone, which had just won a lengthy legal battle to escape £4.8billion in tax.

That night the group sent out tweets asking people to meet outside the Ritz the following Wednesday. It was a moment of youthful impetuosity that could have profound political and social consequences.

The Belle Epoque pomp of a five-star hotel is an unlikely place for the possible birth of a revolution. The significance lies not in the subsequent events that shut down stores across Britain and caused upset for Christmas shoppers last weekend. It lies in the demonstration of the emerging power of social networking as a force for protest, disruption and anarchic chaos.

In just six weeks the Nag’s Head group has sparked a nationwide campaign. People wanting to fight a ragbag of issues have found a virtual flag to rally around. Their actions have revealed the speed, scale and sheer unpredictability of protest in the digital age, causing alarm in traditional political circles.

They expected only a handful of people to turn up to their protest. Instead, 80 people came along. After sitting down and chanting a few slogans in the Vodafone store on Oxford Street, the organisers were astonished to find their campaign going viral on the internet.

Their twitter hashtag (or label) of Ukuncut was “trending” – among the most popular subjects on the network. So that night they built a website to exploit their sudden popularity. Three days later, their new-found followers targeted 25 Vodafone stores in 16 places.

Last weekend it was the turn of billionaire Sir Philip Green, with campaigners descending on his retail empire in 19 towns and cities. His flagship Topshop branch on Oxford Street was closed for an hour as police struggled with 200 protesters. Next up are the banks.

It is easy to mock these protests, not least when an overexcited Labour activist on the Today programme compares them with the suffragettes and anti-apartheid campaigners. Glueing yourself to the window of Brighton Topshop is not quite the same as spending decades on Robben Island.

The campaign is innovative, energetic but riddled with inconsistencies. Why attack companies acting legitimately and employing tens of thousands of people rather than the Government that makes the rules? Why condemn Green as a symbol of the Coalition’s cuts when he is accused of avoiding tax five years ago under a Labour government? And why chant against Nick Clegg, who for all his flip-flopping on student fees has taken a consistently hard line on tax dodgers?

Protesters told reporters that if people such as Green paid all their taxes there would be no need for spending cuts. In fact, at worst tax avoidance is estimated to cost £13billion a year, while the Government is expected to borrow close to £150billion this year. It is a comfortable cause for deficit-deniers.

There is, however, something obscene in the way multinational companies employ armies of accountants and lawyers to shift nominal assets around the world to avoid taxes paid by the rest of us. The latest offender is Cadburys, an iconic British company long associated with Quaker probity. It is being restructured so that Kraft, its new owner, can avoid millions in British taxes by switching ownership of UK assets to a Swiss holding company – enough to make a Fruit and Nut bar stick in the throat.

Unfortunately, the protesters would find the solution just as unpalatable: to ensure Britain has lower rates of corporation tax so that globalised companies pay taxes here.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the issue, the significance of Ukuncut is that unruly flash mob protest has arrived in Britain. It may build into a mass movement or it may implode; already the dunderheaded militants have muscled in, the tedious Socialist Worker banners cropping up alongside the mannequins in Topshop windows.

But the protests have left their mark. Firstly, just as irate student protesters outflanked their elected leader and forced him to apologise for his timidity, so this messy movement threatens to outflank politicians on the Left, filling the void left by Ed Miliband’s hesitant leadership. Even Tom Harris MP, one of the more enthusiastic blogger and twitterers in parliament, has been forced on the defensive over his refusal to join the attacks on Green.

Secondly, they show the speed with which protests can grow. A small group can make a sudden and dramatic impact. A long tail effect is visible, in which scatterings of isolated people can join forces in a way that would have been difficult before the internet, linked by social networking and amplified by Twitter.

This is potentially revolutionary. It could reinvigorate political discourse, making politicians more accountable just as the internet is making businesses more accountable to consumers. Or it could disrupt and destabilise politics, just as WikiLeaks is doing to diplomacy, giving small unrepresentative groups the power to cause chaos. The people behind Ukuncut have honourable intentions; others may not.

Two months ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker called Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. He argued that real social change only came when there were strong personal bonds between people, giving them confidence to take risky actions needed to challenge powerful institutions. His article provoked intense online debate; these protests join plenty of evidence from around the world to disprove his theory.

But one thing is certain. Flash mob protests have arrived in Britain. And they will not be a flash in the pan.

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