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Laurie Penny on how twitter is changing the face of dissent

December 2010 will surely be remembered as the month when the global ruling class lost its monopoly over information.

If its founders hadn't invented such a silly name for Twitter, it would almost certainly have been closed down by now.

The name suggests the cheery inanity of birdsong: it does not imply a considered and coherent back-channel of radical dissent. Without tweets, twibbons and hashtags, however, the public might not be aware that officers of the law recently assaulted a wheelchair user and dragged him behind riot lines.

In the Parliament Square "kettle" on 9 December, I happened to be standing next to Jody McIntyre when the police began to baton him and his brother, who was pushing his wheelchair. Within seconds, I had pulled out my phone to tweet about what I had seen; within minutes, the backlash had begun as outraged citizens all over the country found supporting evidence of the assault and let each other know what had happened. By the time I arrived home, bloody and bruised from further police violence, the assault on Jody had made the national press.

It is clear that the authorities can no longer control the message. In decades to come, December 2010 will surely be remembered as the month when the global ruling class lost its monopoly over information.

With the WikiLeaks US embassy cables cheerfully blowing holes in the sycophantic and dangerous half-truths of international diplomacy, and young protesters using social networking and interactive digital maps to run rings around the police, the game - as the top cop Paul Stephenson so astutely observed - has changed.

Tooled up

This could be the beginning of a second information age. Any new technology takes some years to become truly useful to popular movements: for example, almost as soon as Gutenberg invented the printing press, it was hijacked as a way to disseminate cheap pornography. Luckily it didn't take long before the power of the press was being put to nobler uses, with the invention of the newspaper and the printing of the Bible in English challenging the monoliths of the monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Today, as social media come of age, the rules of resistance are undergoing a similar shift. Combine digital empowerment with a generation systematically deprived of economic security, and you have the perfect storm. Something huge is happening, and the word for that something is solidarity.

Solidarity has gone hypertextual. The student movement that made its voice so powerfully audible in the fee protests was largely organised on Twitter using the hashtag #solidarity. "Being able to contact thousands of people with one short tag was really important," says Jessica, 20, a student activist who claims to have been "radicalised" by Twitter. "#Solidarity has very obviously now become the link between all of those fighting against the same government in different ways," she goes on.

The notion of true solidarity between workers, students and activists was undermined in previous centuries by the fact that dissent was organised according to the old rules of business, with a central bureaucracy and a controlled message. Now, the economy of information has become collaborative.

“Thanks to the internet, the people are becoming the Panopticon - the all-seeing, ubiquitous power," says Aaron Peters, who is working on a PhD on the political impact of social networking. "With these tools, individuals can legitimately say, 'we are everywhere'."

We are everywhere. That is what the young chanted in Parliament Square as the tuition fees vote came through. Behind the bonfires, you could see the scrawled words, "This is just the beginning". For this government and for any government that seeks to control citizens by monopolising information, the writing on the wall . . . is on the web.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder