How did people organise protests before the internet? How did riots happen? How did terrorists carry out attacks? All these things definitely happened. I remember them distinctly. In the days before the world wide web, all sorts of things occurred without anyone “taking to social media” or “using sophisticated communications technology” (phones).
But current discussions are premised on the idea that the web in itself has created civil disorder and even terrorism.
In Ireland, as protests have got to the point where government ministers can barely leave the house without being confronted by citizens unhappy with proposed household water metering, commentator Chris Johns suggested that “Social media has brought more illness to Ireland than Ebola has. Anarchists, extremists and all-round loonies can find a voice and organisational structure – if only for a decent riot – amidst a political fragmentation that rewards those who shout the loudest.”
Considering there have been no recorded incidents of Ebola in Ireland, the first part of this assertion could be technically true; or we could say that social media has brought the same amount of illness to Ireland — none. As for the anarchists and loonies, well, they have always been with us, and had some success in organising before Facebook came along.
Across the Atlantic, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said that “nonstop rumours on social media” had significantly hampered the investigation into the killing of Michael Brown, and contributed to his decision not to prosecute. This in the land of the First Amendment, where the justice system long ago learned to deal with hearsay.
Back over the ocean again, the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee report into the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale pointed to a Facebook message sent by Adebowale, in which he expressed a desire to kill a soldier. In spite of several failures by the intelligence services, who were long aware of Adebowale’s tendencies, Facebook faced criticism for not “flagging up” the message to the security forces. Social media to blame once again.
Why do we do this? Why must every single occurrence now have a social media angle?
Partly because everything many of us do now does have an internet angle. The web is simply part of human interaction for millions.
But for some it seems foreign. My generation is the last that will remember life before the internet.
For all that, it is still shockingly new. I’m not just saying that to make myself feel younger. Some people my age and older (“digital immigrants”, apparently, which makes me a double immigrant) have adapted reasonably well to our new environment. Some really haven’t. I have watched a QC attempt to explain the difference between a reply and a direct message on Twitter. It was as you’d expect, equal parts cute and infuriating, but it did also make one think how insanely fast we have adapted to certain technologies, and how some people are left behind.
When was the last time they changed Facebook? I honestly couldn’t say. But remember when complaining about changes to Facebook was a thing? We used to object; now we install our own mental updates and carry on, using new features and forgetting what went before. I have literally no idea what Facebook looked like when I joined it. Or Twitter for that matter.
And I, remember, am an immigrant, not a native. There are still a lot of people who don’t want to emigrate to the web, because they think it’s full of conspiracy theories and pornography. And there are some who occasionally “log on” to the internet, and then “log off” again, like an overnight work trip to Leicester.
So when something happens that involves an email, a tweet, a Facebook update or whatever, for some that is still of interest in itself.
Will this ever end? Hopefully. As time goes on, the distinction between the internet and THE INTERNET will become clearer. THE INTERNET is a culture; the place where the likes of Doge and Grumpycat come from, and all their predecessors (I still have a soft spot for Mahir “I Kiss You” Çağrı. Look it up, youngsters). The internet is simply a communications tool, like millions upon millions of tin cans joined with taut string. When we can get this a little clearer in our heads, then finding a web angle for every occasion will feel a bit silly, like blaming Bic for poison pen letters.
That is not to say that we should take the web for granted, or become blase about its use and abuse. But we must treat it as simply a part of the environment. Essentially, we have to stop thinking about things happening “on the internet”. There is no “internet freedom” — there is just freedom. There is no “internet privacy” — there is privacy. There are no “internet bullies” — there are bullies.
Free expression and policing can have an antagonistic relationship. Recent events in Ferguson are demonstrative of the issues that arise as the demands for protest clash with those for civil safety.
The police are naturally drawn to the forefront of such a debate as they become the physical manifestation of a state’s commitment to free expression and the right to protest. Thus, as the Obama administration launches a federal investigation into whether the Missouri police systematically violated the civil rights of protesters, it is prescient to ask whether one can demand more of the police to protect free expression.
Undoubtedly, enforcement agencies across the world play a tricky role in facilitating expression while protecting the legitimate safety concerns of the local community. Between 2009 and 2013, police in England spent £10 million on security arrangements for EDL marches. There can also be a huge social cost to galvanic protest and the director of Faith Matters, Fiyaz Mughal, has called for a ban on such marches, claiming that “[We] know there is a corrosive impact on communities, it creates tensions and anti-Muslim prejudice in areas. I think enough is enough. I think a banning order is necessary with the EDL”.
What the recent altercations in Ferguson illustrates is that the role of the police in safeguarding free expression must not be overlooked. More importantly, this is a global issue and as six activists being retried for breaching Egypt’s protest law have started an open-ended sit-in and hunger strike it must be remembered that this debate truly gets to the heart of the basic demands of any civic society.
As scenes from Ferguson have at times resembled the images of police crackdowns in Cairo it is clear that complacency about such issues can prove disastrous. It therefore seems vital to drawn certain lines as to where we feel the police should stand when it comes to creating the basis of a safe but also free society.
A number of journalists have been arrested while covering the protests in Ferguson, Missouri (Photo: Abe Van Dyke/Demotix)
As news spread of a video showing the murder of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (ISIS), journalists and Middle East watchers were unanimous on social media: do not watch the film. And for God’s sake do not post links to the film anywhere. Do not give the killers what they want.
The descriptions were brutal enough. They echoed back over a decade, to the murder of Daniel Pearl by Al Qaeda linked terrorists in Pakistan 2001.
There is a very specific message in the public execution of journalists. It’s a hallmark of extremism, in that it signifies that your movement is far beyond attempting to use the press to “get the message out”, to garner support. This is not about rational grievances the international community could address. This is not about convincing anyone who isn’t already open to your ideas. It’s about rejecting traditional ideas under which the press operates.
But this is partly possible because the likes of ISIS no longer need the attention of press to reach the world. Much has been made of the group’s social media presence. It’s genuinely impressive, and, importantly, clearly the work of people who have grown up with the web; people who are used to videos, Instagram, sharable content. They are, to use that dreaded phrase, “digital natives”. They understand the symbolic power of murdering a journalist, but they see themselves as the ones in charge of controlling the message.
Media workers are increasingly targeted, while the previous privileges they enjoyed fade away.
As I sat down to write this column, the number of journalists arrested while covering disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri stands at 17. According to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, this number includes reporters working for German and UK outfits, as well as domestic American media.
Journalists have apparently been threatened with mace. An Al Jazeera crew had guns pointed at them and their equipment dismantled. A correspondent for Vice had his press badge ripped off him by a policeman who told him it was meaningless (in slightly coarser language).
The Ferguson story is a catalogue of things gone wrong: racism, disenfranchisement, the proliferation of firearms, a militarised police force (a concept that goes far beyond mere weaponry; this is law enforcement as occupying force rather than as part of a balanced democracy). To single out the treatment of media workers may seem a little self serving, but there is good reason to do so.
We are used to telling ourselves by now that journalism is a manifestation of a human right — that of free expression. Smartphones, cheap recording equipment, and free access to social media and blogging platforms have revolutionised journalism; the means of production have fallen into the hands of the many.
This is a good thing. The more information we have on events, surely the better. But one question does arise: if we are all journalists now, what happens to the privileges journalists used to claim?
Official press identification in the UK states that the holder is recognised by police as a “bona fide newsgatherer”. As statements of status go, it seems a paltry thing. But it does imply that some exception must be made for the bearer. The recognised journalist, it is suggested, should be free to roam a scene unmolested. One can ask questions and reasonably expect an answer. One can wield a video or audio device and not have it confiscated. One can talk to whoever one wants, without fear of recrimination.
That, at least, is the theory. But in Britain, the US and elsewhere, the practice has been changing. Whether during periods of unrest or after, police have shown a disregard for the integrity of journalists’ work. The actions of police in Ferguson have merely been part of a pattern.
The question is whether we can maintain the idea of journalistic privilege when everyone is a potential journalist.
During the legal tussles over the case of David Miranda, the partner of former Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald, an attempt was made to identify persons engaged in journalistic activity, without necessarily being employed as journalists.
Miranda was detained and searched at Heathrow airport as he was believed to have been carrying files related to Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, with a view to publication in the Guardian, though he is not actually a journalist himself.
The suggestion made by Miranda’s supporters (Index on Censorship included) is that the activity of journalism is what is recognised, rather than the journalist.
This may be applicable in circumstances such as a border search, but how would it apply in the heat of the moment in somewhere like Ferguson, or during the London riots, or any of the recent upheavals where citizen footage has proliferated. If someone starts recording a confrontation with the authorities, are they immediately engaged in journalistic activity? Or does journalism depend on what happens to your video, your pictures, your tweets?