Twitter: The slacker's protest tool of choice

Shout and scream without getting tear-gassed

Richard Cobbett

Mob rule is great fun. Never having been an activist myself – I gave up meat once, but only until I remembered that dead animals are delicious – I've never really had the experience of sitting out in the cold and wet, waving placards at impassive politicians and trying to change the world with slogans.

Still, I won't deny that a little anarchy can be good for the soul, so like everyone who wants to shout and scream without getting tear-gassed in the face, I like Twitter.

Revolution in 140 characters! Resistance as a timewaster, but not necessarily a waste of time!

Just remind me: what are we rebelling against at the moment? No, no, doesn't matter! It's probably important, so I'll just turn my avatar puce in protest anyway, and slap this #cradlebridge hashtag on the end of my cutting political commentary.

Rebel, rebel

First, "I hope they all burn! #cradlebridge", then "Spread the word! Have these #cradlebridge people stabbed in the face!". And later: "Having a bacon and lettuce bap. Mmm! Bacon!" (because, well, all this Internet Justice really makes a guy hungry).

Protesting on Twitter has so many advantages. First, people assume you know what's going on. Just as you'll rarely hear a mob chanting "Hell no, we'll just stay! Unless you can explain your actions in a logical way!", your average Twitter person rarely feels the need for so-called 'arguments' when a simple statement will do.

By the time you see the flood in your client of choice, be it Tweetdeck or one of the rubbish ones, you'll know all you need to know about the important factor: what you're meant to think.

Actually finding out what 'it' is can be done at your leisure, whether it's discovering that #trafigura can be a catch-all for a truly hideous attempt to censor the press, or actually reading Jan Moir's now infamous gay celebrity bashing column in The Daily Mail before politely requesting that she be shot into space at the earliest possible opportunity.

One of the delightful Ms Moir's claims is that the outrage against her was in some way an 'orchestrated' campaign – a touchingly naïve idea. The internet doesn't go in much for organisation, despite the millions of campaigns and petitions and memes.

The armies of online vengeance are more unleashed than commanded. It's assumed that someone, somewhere has done the necessary research, and that the voice of the mob is the voice of truth. It helps that it's usually targeted against people we all hate (rationally or otherwise), like big companies, politicians and lawyers.

What happens when it all goes wrong? As far as most of us are concerned: nothing. After all, our part in the mob is merely to wave a flag or, if we're particularly riled, throw some cash into a legal fund somewhere in the great PayPal empire.

That makes it all the easier to take part, because even if we back the wrong horse – #supportcancer instead of #beatcancer for instance – the ephemeral nature of a tweet means that a week later, nobody remembers and even fewer people care. Unless you're a big internet celebrity, anyway.

Misguided support

Even then, the casual, off-the-cuff nature of Twitter makes it hard to really shoot yourself in the foot for longer than a week or so. Still, mob justice can't all be fun and games – as in the case of Jon Engle earlier this year.

The pitch was perfect Twitter fodder: a poor artist accused of stealing his own work by a heartless stock image library. It spread like wildfire – a #savejon hashtag, a donation drive, a barrage of angry emails to the guilty parties and their lawyers… all only slightly undermined when it became clear that the images in question pre-dated Engle's site and appeared in assorted artists' portfolios.

The man himself soon dropped off the radar, and even the sternest critic of the stock image company involved had to admit that the torrents of rage were, at the very least, premature.

The question here is whether the rage of the mob was still a good thing. After all, the light of truth did eventually fall upon the situation where otherwise it might not. On the other hand, the whole ordeal can't have been anything less than hellishly stressful for anyone involved, innocent or guilty, decent or otherwise.

Can the satisfaction of hundreds of uninformed people exploding across the net make up for the lack of actual information, the damage to reputations and the general pointlessness of getting unfeasibly angry over something that's, at best, none of anyone else's business? Yes. Yes, of course it does.

Righteous indignation is what the internet was created for (if you ignore all the stuff of actual benefit to humanity), and there's no justice like mob justice.

The more time we spend worrying if we've got things right, the less time we'll have to get cross, and we're busy people with busy lives to attend to away from the Twitter screen. We've got TV to watch and everything.

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