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26 August 2017

The van attack meme, and how tech giants face up to the alt-right

With every new attack – and the coverage that follows it – the threshold for violence is raised.

By Helen Lewis

It’s 41 years since Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” as a cultural version of a gene: an idea or behaviour that replicates itself through society. After hearing about the terrible van attack in Barcelona, I couldn’t help thinking of it that way: a response to both the difficulty of building a viable bomb (demonstrated by the terror cell’s accidental destruction of its own workshop the night before the attack) and the coverage of previous attacks in London, Paris, Nice and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that would also suggest that we should expect more such attacks. In 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about sociologist Mark Granovetter, who tried to understand why non-violent people became involved in riots. “Social processes are driven by our thresholds,” wrote Gladwell. “In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero – instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one.”

Gladwell applied the same model to school shootings, arguing that these were more than simple copycats, but instead a group with very different backgrounds and motivations, “a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot”.

We could also apply it to van attacks. Some are carried out by men with overt affiliations to terror groups, but there are also smaller-scale attacks that tend to kill a handful of people.

In Finsbury Park in June, one such attack targeted an Islamic centre, injuring 11; in April, five people died in Stockholm when a car drove into a department store. The alleged perpetrator in Finsbury Park was white; in Stockholm it was a rejected Uzbek asylum seeker. But with every new attack – and the coverage that follows it – the threshold is raised.

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Disunited right

The shocking images of white supremacists that emerged from Charlottesville, and the resulting acknowledgement that their repulsive views largely bred online, have rattled the big internet companies. After the death of protester Heather Heyer, several white supremacist Facebook pages disappeared, and there were similar bans by Reddit, Twitter and hosting companies. It was the first real crack in the tech giants’ insistence that they cannot be held responsible for what happens on their platforms.

This is long overdue. As John Herrman wrote in the New York Times: “A community of trolls on an internet platform is, in political terms, not totally unlike a fascist movement in a weak liberal democracy: it engages with and uses the rules and protections of the system it inhabits with the intent of subverting it and eventually remaking it in their image or, if that fails, merely destroying it.” There are limits to tolerance.

Northern exposure

“Far be it from me to offer advice to the Prime Minister on how to relaunch her premiership this autumn,” wrote George Osborne in the Financial Times, before offering advice to the Prime Minister. The former chancellor suggested that Theresa May should use the Conservative party conference to commit to “High Speed 3”, a rail line linking Liverpool and Hull.

If any politician is serious about the “Westminster bubble” or the “north-south divide”, then improving transport in the north of England and Wales is vital. In July, transport secretary Chris Grayling scrapped plans to electrify railway lines in the Midlands, Lake District and from Cardiff to Swansea, after the budget ballooned. The electrification of the line between Manchester and Leeds is also “paused”. I suspect the rest of the country reads the endless stories about the woes of Southern Rail and feels a little left out.

A little bus

There’s also a tempting analogy between transport and education. As Peter Wilby wrote last week (First Thoughts, 18 August), the saga of Learndirect, the country’s biggest provider of apprenticeships and training, is a major scandal. But the children of journalists, MPs and lobbyists are more likely to go to university than into an apprenticeship, so I suspect it will rumble rather than rage. In the same way, we hear a lot more about railways – which disproportionately benefit the middle classes and those of working age. But buses account for 80 per cent of public transport in Wales (and that’s after services declined by half in the decade from 2005-15).

The loss of bus services is particularly hard on older people. Search the local papers and you’ll turn up all kinds of small tragedies, like Thornbury in Gloucestershire, where the 615 route is ending because the operator is insolvent. “I am on my way to the shops right now,” Eunice Cox, 95, told the local paper. “Where would I be if I didn’t have this little bus to help me get there?”

Burgeoning Burgon

During my last sojourn in this column, I criticised Labour’s justice spokesman Richard Burgon, saying that a) he doesn’t seem to have had much effect on prisons policy; and b) the latest post on his Twitter feed was sticking the knife into colleagues who weren’t sufficiently pro-Corbyn. In a searing Facebook post, he called this a “bizarre attack on Labour” and pointed out that he had “recently spoken on prisons in parliament, on the news and in the papers and have, amongst other things, accompanied the chief inspector of prisons on a prisons inspection”. I am happy to clarify that Burgon has indeed made some media appearances, for which I congratulate him.

Living a life

The TV shows of Bruce Forsyth were an integral part of my childhood. (Was winning a cuddly toy really that aspirational back then? Apparently so.) His death reminded me of a strange fact: he was born on 22 February 1928, making him 16 months older than Anne Frank. All those stolen years. 

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia