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.
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.