“You there! Terrorist! Remove that webpage of mass destruction!”


Why there’s more to the arrest of the person who uploaded that snap of a burning poppy than ‘poppy fascism’

A number of Puffles’ followers have been up in arms over the arrest of a person who uploaded a photo of someone setting a poppy alight. Many will – quite understandably – go after the issue of free speech. While it may be in incredibly bad taste to do such a thing, is it something that the law should be getting involved in? Is it something that we are all equal before the law – for example if people doing the same thing are from different religious backgrounds? What’s the difference between one person committing such an act and uploading it after a night out with too much alcohol vs another person doing so while demonstrating in a public place? I’ll leave that for others to argue. I’m interested in the even wider issue of how people and institutions influence the behaviour of individuals.

“Cease terrorising my community you terrorist – get down on the ground, you is under arrest!”

Since the atrocities of 11 September 2001, the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ seem to have taken on completely different meanings. Let’s not forget that this was one of the biggest peacetime attacks on UK citizens since the Second World War – with 67 British Citizens losing their lives in the attacks – more than the 52 who lost their lives in London on 7/7/2005. The reason why I believe we need to be careful with language we attach to offences is that in my view it diminishes the meaning of when real bad stuff happens. In the tabloid decades of recent times, the blurring of language has become all the more common – which at the same time makes it easier for satirists to lampoon. For the latter, it feels like it’s one of the few ways of some of us saying “We don’t like the way our language is being abused by headline writers and editors, so we’ll lampoon you instead.”

But back to poppies…

There is a very good reason why we should commemorate the outbreak of the First World War

…it’s just not the reason the Prime Minister – or the establishment for that matter – are probably thinking. Hence why I find this offensive.

There were only 50 parishes across the UK that did not suffer any losses during that conflict. This meant that almost every community in the UK – not to mention from the then colonies – suffered losses. Loved ones that did not come back. It’s strange to think what the impact must have been on communities to have suffered not just the absence of men, but also those that came back broken from the battlefields…

…which is why it’s all the more astonishing that the decision to go to war has rested in the hands of so few people

I was one of the hundreds of thousands of people that marched against the war in 2003 – the biggest single peacetime demonstration in UK history. As far as the centre-left is concerned, the failure of the protests, campaigns and lobbying had a huge impact on depoliticising an entire generation of people – just as Nick Clegg’s actions & comments on tuition fees has done today. Why should young people bother to get engaged in politics when events have shown that even if they do so in huge numbers (and in absence of a huge social movement arguing the opposite with similar effort and passion) next to no impact will be made?

But this wasn’t what I wanted to cover in this blogpost

It was about how societies are controlled – or control themselves

“Isn’t that what we have laws and the police for?”

I like to look back to my childhood days of playing Civilization for this one – before I even comprehended what the internet was, let alone what its potential was. In that game, your challenge was to build an empire to stand the test of time. If people started getting angry, you either built buildings to placate them, sent in soldiers to enforce martial law or pull citizens from production to be entertainers – from jesters to being Elvis impersonators. The point being that societies and rulers over time evolved systems of control to keep their populations in check. Sometimes it was religion, sometimes it was entertainment, other times it was brute force – or perhaps a combination of all three.

One of the things that (anecdotally – I’m thinking aloud after half a bottle of rioja here) feels like a common strand is systems of communication. Alberto Nardelli at the EU event I was at a few days ago used the anecdote of a cleric lambasting about how horrible the printing press was – before using the printing press to distribute his argument about how horrible the printing press was. The emergence of communications’ technologies over the centuries allowed societies to evolve and adapt to them. Those that failed to accommodate them – and in particular sought to repress them – found themselves in trouble. (Not because of communications, but rather communications amplified what were already wider issues – whether lack of food to go around, to warfare or oppressive regimes that went one step too far). But my point here is that the changes took place over long periods of time. With the internet and now social media, it has happened over a very short space of time.

Who’s in control of how people behave?

As far as social media use is concerned, this is what institutions are really struggling with. And no one really knows what the answer is. I was part of a Westminster Skeptics gathering not so long ago where we discussed this in the context of internet trolling. Despite having an audience of some of the brightest minds on Twitter there, we could not come to a conclusion on how to deal with internet hate. People wanted something done about it, but didn’t trust ‘the state’ as an institution to be the organisation to do something about it.

There is the ‘yeah, but would you say/do that in public’ test – but social media allows people to be anonymous. Sometimes for very good reason and sometimes for anything but. How do you draw the distinction between the two and who makes the judgement call as to what is right and what is not? One person’s freedom fighter may be another person’s terrorist. One person’s abusive poster may be another person’s campaigner holding someone else to account. It’s all so subjective.

As for the person who posted the picture of him setting a poppy alight with a cigarette lighter, how many other young people have set alight poppies with cigarette lighters over the decades? Where people saw and objected to it, how did they deal with it? If you saw someone doing that, how would you respond? Would you call the police, intervene directly or walk on by?

The same could be said for internet p0rn. How many of you that have looked online have been into one of those ‘private shops’ and bought something from them. I used to have to walk past one such emporium during my final year at university. Sometimes it’d have metal shutters down, while other times it would not, but would have blinds fully down so no one would have any idea what they were selling. At the time, I genuinely didn’t. (I was brought up in Cambridge in a Catholic community – what we didn’t know about the world wasn’t going to hurt us!) I thought that a ‘private shop’ was a contradiction in terms. When I wandered in, there was this sign that said “Don’t go in if easily offended or under 18”. I thought. “This is Brighton. What could offend me?” Then it made sense as to why it was labelled as such. Several years later, on a journey to Hamburg some German acquaintances took me to some similar shops there to see what my reaction would be. I was like “Yeah – I had to walk past one of these things every day at university”, completely deadpan and unfazed at being in the middle of what was a very crowded establishment!

But it’s not a free-for-all

The one thing that (rightly) gets people angry is the abuse of the vulnerable – in particular children. Hence the reactions in recent times around not just all things Savile but beyond. As we have seen. some of our biggest institutions are rocking – not just the BBC.

As far as institutions are concerned, those at the top of them won’t have grown up with the internet, let alone social media. With the latter, some may only have seen it as an item on a risk register or ‘something they need to become familiar with, but not yet.’ Hence a tension where you have lots of social media-savvy younger staff whose potential is unfulfilled. This is a challenge I’ve put to some very influential organisations.

As a society, the question is: “How do we hold each other accountable for what we post?” At what point should online communities self-police, and at what point should parliaments legislate for the law to become involved?

I genuinely do not know the answer


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