Antisocial media

On Wednesday night, we were all sitting around the dinner table, wating to eat, when my 18-year-old son strode in late. He was very upset about something. My seven-year-old daughter asked him what was wrong.

“I’ve just seen a man having his head cut off by two terrorists in Woolwich.”

He’d found the footage by following a link from a tweet to footage that one of the unfortunate bystanders had shot.

My seven-year-old hasn’t slept properly since.

Obviously, this appalling murder has caused some people a lot more pain than a few nights’ lost sleep.

But it seems clear that this was the intention. To make the world watch the atrocity, whether it wanted to or not.

We’d heard the news by dinner time on Wednesday, but had decided not to mention it to the children. So had the BBC, it seemed. The way it reported the murder left quite a lot of the gruesome details in doubt. It had exercised editorial control as a broadcaster, just as we had done as parents. We had all failed.

With social media, as with our son, there is no editorial control.

That’s what the murderers were counting on. They knew that their brutal attack would spread round the world unconstrained by any system. That it would go straight from the bystanders’ smartphones and then onto the web, and rage like wildfire.

They even encouraged it to do so by giving ‘interviews’ to the people who were filming them; trying to justify their cowardly assault with some infantile relativist arithmetic of suffering.

It didn’t work, but an awful lot of people saw it not working. We haven’t yet had the infographics of how the story spread and how many people participated on twitter, facebook, tumblr and pinterest. But the infographics will come, don’t worry.

Back in the day when I worked with Greenpeace, they had two types of campaign activity. One type was the genuine direct action, where their activists would do something to stop something awful happening. You’ve seen the pictures: brave people in tiny RIBS getting between a harpoonist and a whale; people in white suits pulling up GM crops.

But they also had a category called direct communication. This was where what the activists were doing wasn’t really going to stop something bad, but it was going to draw attention to it – to give it what Mrs Thatcher might have called “the oxygen of publicity”. Activists would climb up a chimney, or chain themselves to an oil rig.

Direct communications were a whole lot easier to organise, and a whole lot harder to prevent, than direct actions. They involved fewer people and softer targets. Though back then Greenpeace tended to have to invite the media, or film the actions themselves.

It was an approach that worked well. And now the bad guys have appropriated it.

Make no mistake about it: what happened in Woolwich was a direct communication. Apart from the poor victim and his family – for whom I have nothing but the deepest sympathy – it touched hardly anyone directly. But the whole world knows it happened, and that it could happen again. Only two people seem to have been involved, and no one needed to invite the media. But it may well change the entire way that our armed forces behave in the UK.

As a friend of mine would say, One-nil to Satan. And what provided the assist for the goal was the ready availability of social media.

Compare the simplicity of this outrage to that of 9/11. Then, would-be murderers had to train for years to be pilots, had to hijack aeroplanes, had to fly them into buildings. On Wednesday, they just rocked up to Woolwich barracks with a meat cleaver. They knew the public and twitter would do the rest.

Of course, it’s difficult to compare 9/11 with this outrage. Yes, the outcome that day in NYC was much more devastating, and many more people were slaughtered. But the risks involved in organising it were much greater. It’s difficult to see how intelligence services could have infiltrated what seems to have been a ‘cell’ of two loons, though already they are being blamed for not having rounded them up earlier.

The only comparable event was the bomb at the Boston Marathon, but that was a direct action, and social media blurred what had really happened. And then the authorities took the network down. They exercised editorial control.

And that is probably what will happen here next time. Because of course there will always be a next time, especially when an action has been so effective.

Because this hideous crime certainly has been effective. Look at Facebook now. It’s full of anti-muslim nonsense and prejudice, thanks to the bigots and loons who will take any opportunity to fly their fascist flags. So if the terrorists have achieved one thing, it’s to make a sensible debate about the issues impossible. In fact, it’s more like two deaf men shouting at each other than any kind of debate at all.

So next time we’ll lose our ability to communicate. It’ll be just another erosion of our liberty, brought about by terrorists. But one that may at least help my seven-year-old sleep better at night.