Are the police afraid of Twitter?

Report highlights changing nature of protest – both from the left and the far right.

 

Police are struggling to keep up with protest in the digital age, according to a new report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

The report is interesting in two respects – first, it notes that protests are on the up ("after a few, relatively quiet years, this is a new period of public order policing"), and second, it explains that the nature of protest is changing.

On the second point, it says that "what seems evident is a willingness to disrupt the public and test police", and explains:

The character of protest is evolving in terms of: the numbers involved; spread across the country; associated sporadic violence; disruption caused; short notice or no-notice events, and swift changes in protest tactics.

. . . large numbers of protesters can be organised in hours and change their focus in minutes through the use of social media and mobile phones. Those responsible for commanding events must plan with this adaptability in mind.

Given that it warns that reforms to police tactics take about two years to filter down, this can only be good news for anti-cuts protesters such as UK Uncut (which I wrote about in the magazine recently) and students.

While the police can certainly work on their monitoring of social media, it is difficult to see how they can effectively police the rapid response garnered by "flash mob"-style protests in multiple locations.

HMIC notes that "adaptability and preparedness come at a cost", with some forces reporting significant increases in spending on public order. This is problematic, given government plans to cut police grants by 20 per cent.

But coming back to the first point – that protests are on the up – it is important for those on the left to remember that this isn't all the work of romantic would-be revolutionaries. Indeed, the most significant public order burden by far is presented by the English Defence League, which, HMIC says, is "test[ing] police resources at short notice".

The report's summary of significant demonstrations over the past 18 months shows that more than half were organised by EDL in small towns across the country. With the exception of one student protest, EDL required the largest police presence.

The recent use of CS gas against UK Uncut campaigners, and violence against student protesters in December, is clear evidence that the police are panicking in the face of a new breed of protest that they do not understand. It is essential that they adapt to the changed circumstances in a way that facilitates the public right to peaceful protest, and not simply by attempting to stamp it out.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser