How one man rose above the Summit

Protesters and establishment at the G20 Summit have struggled with their use of social media to emulate the impact of one maverick politician in getting a message across, notes David Bowen.

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I like things like the G20 Summit, because it gives me a chance to see where we have got to on the internet.
So, as the establishment and the anti-establishment prepared to collide in London, I started to look at the different strands of internettery to assess what they were up to.
Then I got diverted by Daniel Hannan, and realised that the only real question is ‘Can we do a Hannan?’. Communications people around the world must be asking themselves the same question, so must anarchists and activists. How on earth did he do it? And can we do the same?

Hannan the parliamentarian

Who is he and what did he do? Mr Hannan is a British Conservative Member of the European Parliament, and on 24 March he made a speech attacking Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister. It lasted three minutes 42 seconds and it was merciless – the people in the chamber, including Mr Brown, must have taken good note of it.
And there it may have rested. It went on the parliament website, where you can watch it in Latvian and Maltese, and read a transcript. The BBC and other national papers ignored it, according to Mr Hannan’s blog at The Daily Telegraph. All he did was to post it on the video channel YouTube, as he has with all his speeches for the past seven months.
By this Wednesday morning [1 April], a week later, the video had been viewed 1,858,584 times. It was the 18th most popular YouTube video worldwide in March (and the only serious one anywhere near the top), fifth on YouTube UK and had four times more views than the next most popular news and politics clip.
It had gone viral. Links to it had been passed around in the same way as the other top videos (such as Woman blows up hot water bottle). Mr Hannan says that other right-wing bloggers linked to it, and he was interviewed on Fox News in the US. It seems it touched a nerve – expressing something that many people felt, but that had been insufficiently expressed. The Obama-driven fascination with oratory may have had something to do with it, as may Mr Brown’s expression as he was forced to listen.

Impact not easy to repeat

So before I even started looking at the G20 specifics, I knew that the biggest thing you can do on the internet is to make a YouTube video that goes viral. If there has ever been a more cost-effective form of communication, I can’t think of it. This is not a particularly original thought (the BBC made a short video specifically to see if it could do the same), but it is fascinating that a man in a suit talking about politics can succeed where the vast majority of YouTube video-posters fail.
The problem for the anarchists and communications people of the world is that few of them will be able to achieve this deliberately. Barack Obama can guarantee good viewing figures, so can Osama bin Laden. But it’s difficult for the rest of us; I doubt even Mr Hannan will be able to do a repeat.

Extras Gs but not whizz

More immediately, back at the G20 online coverage, what changes have there been since the last big summit in Britain: G8 at Gleneagles in 2005 (the year the bombs went off in London, to remind you)?
In some ways, not many. There is a bland official site, as there was in 2005. There are plenty of ‘anti’ sites, but they seem not to be using the web any more effectively. As in 2005, none of these sites spend too much time explaining their thinking – they are preaching to the converted or, rather, providing a noticeboard for them. The sites themselves have a slightly old-fashioned feel.
I suppose the general increase in quality of websites means sites like these are bound to lag. Does it matter? Only if you are trying to impress a new generation brought up on slick graphics.

Potential of the new is unfulfilled

More interesting is the use of techniques that barely existed in 2005. There’s been a lot of talk about their significance: I read that the police have picked up worrying ‘chatter’ (I’m sure there are also people sending one another messages by code). But if it’s there, it’s well hidden. I’m inclined to think the real chatter has been about chatter – in the press mainly.
The new techniques – call them web 2.0, social media – are often touted as promoting conversations, community, whatever. They may have the potential, but they rarely achieve it – online communication remains an overwhelmingly one-way affair.
Facebook was being used quite vigorously, though not as an organising tool. There are several G20 Meltdown pages. The first one listed has a modest number of members and is designed as a noticeboard. But only one protest, about Tibet, has been posted: in theory Facebook has an advantage over a website in that anybody can stick up announcements on it, rather than just the owner. But this one doesn’t have much traction. A much more lively – though easy to miss – Facebook page is called G20 Meltdown April 1st and 2nd. It has more than 3,000 members and plenty of comments – there’s a fair amount of debate about the issues, with some people taking the protestors on.
In theory, this is powerful and makes it more flexible than a website: here anyone can pin notices, on a site only the owner can. But it doesn’t seem to be working. Only one event has been posted – for a Free Tibet protest. My guess is that Facebook is still not much more than a toy to most people; that may be a strength, but not if you are trying to organise demonstrations.

Anti-subversive tendencies

A couple of years ago the big story would have been blogs – but it isn’t now. The protest organisations I looked at don’t bother with them, perhaps because blogs tend to have a sometimes genteel, thoughtful feel to them. That would explain why the big NGOs (non-governmental organisations), who are a pretty genteel bunch, have gone down the blogging route. G20 Voice is a slick site set up by Oxfam, Save the Children and others, based around the idea that “50 of the world’s most interesting and influential bloggers will be your eyes and ears at the G20 summit”. All sounds a bit respectable: I’ll be surprised if anything goes viral here.
Twitter is interesting. In theory it is a godsend for people who want to broadcast instructions to thousands of people. Put out a message and your massed followers will pick it up and do your bidding. It is being used to an extent: the G20 Meltdown stream put up a post on Tuesday [31 March]: “Convergence space being evicted. Get down and help resistance. 8-16 Earl St…”. Which is fine, except that 18 hours later, on the morning of the big event, the only new tweet was about Billy Bragg (the musician) needing ‘”a pick-up and lead for his acoustic”. The feed has 704 followers, which is respectable – but I bet it would have a lot more if we couldn’t see who they are. Most give their real names and provide a nice photograph.
Not much good if you’re trying to be seriously subversive, which is why I wasn’t surprised to see a much less trendy technology, SMS text messaging, being used to redirect the troops. Climate Camp has a sign-up page, noting that “it is possible, even likely that the place we finally set up camp will not the Climate Exchange”. It is. of course, conceivable that the police have mobile phones, but at least it will make them move fast.

The sting is in the tale

There is one way in which the new technologies are being harvested. Indymedia encourages people on the day to send in reports by text or picture messages or by Twitter. So we will have a form of mass journalism. And if someone takes a video of, say, a policeman being overenthusiastic with his truncheon, this will be surely posted to YouTube. Twitter will spread the word, and we may yet have a Daniel Hannan moment this April Fools’ Day.

First published 01 April, 2009
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