#EnoughIsEnough – Joining this weekend’s social media boycott

The sleevenotes for The Special A.K.A.’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, detailing the injustices of the imprisonment of ‘Accused No. 1’ and the other Rivonia trialists in apartheid South Africa, motivated this student to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the first activist organisation I ever joined. I kept my membership and, later, happily, once South Africa had changed its policies, was a founding member of ACTSA, the successor organisation to AAM.

Image from blog.snappingturtle.net (blog no longer updated)

The search for racial justice was evidently not confined to South Africa – The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and the riots in various cities which formed its coincidental backdrop had been three years earlier – and neither was South Africa the only country in which apartheid was practised. South Africa left apartheid behind ten years after ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (it too played a role) but apartheid, as a set of principles of the division of people based on their heritage, is still practised in several countries.

Likewise, the search for racial justice is an enduring one. In the sporting world, the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 (not without a backlash, extending also to Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished second and whose story is also interesting) were given fresh impetus by the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to ‘take the knee’ before games is now routinely the case with football players doing so before matches in Europe (though not everywhere, either in the UK or in Europe) in support of Black Lives Matter. There is a concern that this action has come to represent routine tokenism, with little actual achievement of, or advancement in, rights; that people in general – and perhaps even some of those directly involved – no longer understand the whats and whys, or that this is a protest action, and have become impatient with it; and that its commonplace nature has obscured the principles at stake.

Protest needs to continue as long as the injustices which spark it are still in place and, while token gestures are to be avoided, and more and better action certainly needs to result within football to improve the representation of black players, ‘taking the knee’ can still result in some powerful images.

This weekend sees a boycott of social media supported by Kick It Out in protest at the abuse of players on social media and which frequently has a racist angle. It’s fair to say that the action is not everywhere supported, partly for the reasons of tokenism suggested above. Some – including Paul Canoville, an ex-player for Reading FC whose career was ended by a typically brutish Dave Swindlehurst ‘challenge’ after fewer than twenty, dazzling, games (I saw him play) and who, as Chelsea’s first black player in 1982, after the riots and before The Special A.K.A., directly experienced the hatred of 1980s terraces racism – have urged players instead to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism.

It is of course possible both to join a short-term social media blackout and to speak out directly. While football has, at least in this country, made significant strides since the 1980s both on and off the terraces it is not doing enough to address the lack of opportunities for black players after their playing careers are over; while the turn to the far-right in the public discourse is likely to be followed on the terraces too (and, perhaps, not only at Millwall whose fans booed their players taking their knee in the home game v Derby, to the club’s ‘sadness’ and ‘dismay’ although the players stopped doing so a few games later). After all people – at matches in the UK; eastern Europe having its own problems in this regard – no longer throwing bananas at black players, or making monkey noises, represents only a limited degree of progress; and, as we have learned, hard-won progress is easily lost when it is taken for granted. Once fans are back in the grounds, there is a role here for fan-led action and, after the demonstrations of fan power which led to the ending of talk of the ‘European Super League’, that clearly encompasses the potential for boycotts, too.

In such times, statements are required and I’ll be joining the social media boycott from 3pm this afternoon, logging out and closing Twitter (I’m not part of Zuck’s money-making machine), in direct solidarity with Liam Moore, captain of Reading FC and the subject of a terrible social media post which led to him closing his Twitter account earlier this month.

It is impossible for social media companies to moderate every post and poll in advance, but it is also clear that ‘the community’ can only police the actions of the idiots so far – and even then only retrospectively, i.e. once the damage is done. It is also clear that social media organisations can do much more to wipe out the abuse. Their algorithms can block posts – as we know – on the basis of certain keywords, when they choose to do so; and they can do more to ascertain the identities of account holders such that subsequent action against those who abuse the platforms isn’t subject to guesswork and sleuthing. This is not an argument for ending public anonymity where people want, or need, it – but the social media organisations need to be able immediately to identify precisely who is responsible for a particular post where criminality is involved. Ascertaining identities as part of the process of setting up an account would stop people whose accounts have been blocked from simply opening another under a different name – multiple accounts are also a problem in themselves – and they would also stop the troll farms (ditto); while ending the current ease with which social media accounts can be set up would also, to some extent, be self-policing as regards how people conduct themselves online.

All of this, of course, might be thought to reduce accounts and traffic, and thus revenues – which might well account in some way for the tardiness of the social media organisations to do what is already within their powers. But a line has to be drawn and the vileness of much of our public discourse needs to be positively addressed. If not, the toxicity of much online behaviour is likely to lead to more people simply closing their accounts and walking away and that, in turn, will leave the social media organisations more in the hands of the serial abusers and, therefore, somewhat less attractive to advertisers and other funders. It is, therefore, ultimately in the interests of such organisations to end the abuse.

My hope is that the anticipated decline in collective social media traffic over this holiday weekend will do its bit to persuade the social media organisations to play their part better. To co-opt a phrase – when the fun stops: stop.

#EnoughIsEnough #AnInjuryToOneIsAnInjurytoAll

[EDIT: before I logged off, I noticed that the Football Supporters Association, which is also joining the boycott, had published a six-point programme for change regarding how social media companies could do more to stop online abuse. It’s pretty much in line with the above, being based on:

  • applying filters and blocking measures
  • better accountability for safety, including effective verification
  • ensure real-life consequences for perpetrators
  • a warning message to be displayed when an account holder writes an abusive message
  • robust, reliable and quick measures where abuse is posted
  • transparent quarterly reports to be published on work done to eradicate abuse.

In general, this is a worthwhile plan for action which social media companies need to take seriously.]

Women’s participation in Up Helly A’: some follow-up

One of the themes of my earlier, otherwise more general, post on Up Helly A’ was the campaign to allow women and girls to march in the Lerwick event, the only one from which they are currently excluded because of their sex (see, for instance, the Shetland Times‘s report on the following week’s Nesting and Girlsta UHA). Crossing my timeline this week was a reference to a new campaign group being set up called ‘Women for Remain the Same’ – essentially, therefore, an anti-inclusion group although its ‘supporters’ are in no way limited to women. ‘Women for Remain the Same’ being open to men when it’s not open to women to join UHA squads and to join the ranks of the guizers is, perhaps, one of the odder and more perplexing aspects to all this.

Things being what they are, this is a Facebook campaign and, because I don’t subscribe to Zuckerberg’s data mining operation, I can’t see what the group says or why they’ve decided to set it up. It would seem obvious, however, that the purpose would be to illustrate that there is not ‘community support’ for the inclusion of women; and that the campaigns in that direction would therefore appear to have progressed far enough to get someone, or a group of people, somewhat rattled.

The arguments around the careful establishment of ‘useful’ groups to slow down progressive change are well-trodden ones – as a letter writer to the Shetland Times points out, there were anti-suffrage groups, too; probably all movements for change are faced with the need to overcome the sclerotic forces of conservatism.

The direction in which this blog’s sympathies run on this issue ought to be very clear.

A campaign for things to remain as they already are doesn’t readily lend itself to activism and declamatory sloganising, and it isn’t designed to get the juices running and people on the streets – indeed, its purpose is actually the reverse of this. However, the song can’t always remain the same, as Robert Plant – coincidentally appearing at this year’s HebCelt, by the way – would perhaps report in connection with his post-Led Zep career. Organisations, especially social ones – and the Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee is a social organisation – need to evolve, especially when confronted with pressures to change, or they risk becoming not only anachronistic but also ossified where they are deliberately exercising the choice not to change, once asked to do so.

If ossification is not to result, those arguing that the Lerwick UHA does not need to change need to come up with greater justification for a lack of movement than things are fine as they are. (Since they are clearly not fine.) Amongst other things, they need to say how they think allowing women and girls to march will change the character of the event. Tradition only takes us so far (and not least when women are able to march in all Shetland’s other UHAs). Furthermore, the joy of UHA night, after the pageantry and the drama of the day’s events, is the right to dress up in outrageously silly costumes, with numerous WTF? moments, entertain people in the halls with song and dance, and simply have fun. Those that want to keep things as they are need to justify why those same rights cannot be extended to women – and the answer clearly does not (and should not) lie in that this will stop lads dressing up in dresses (because I bet that it won’t). Squads dressing in fishnets and short dresses to pay homage to Tina Turner in her 80th year (Squad 25), or as 18th century society ladies to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th (Squad 36), or in pink tutus (the magnificent Swine Lake, again: Squad 42) will still not only be able to do that once women participate – but will still be doing so.

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Guizing isn’t for everyone – the night is long and, for the main squad, the whole day can be gruelling even in good weather – but stamina and fitness is no respecter of sex and, when you’re having this much fun, why would you want to choose to deny those who want to do so the opportunity to join in? And the answer to that is the same for one person as it is for 300.

Above all, people need to explain why they think it is perfectly feasible to direct girls towards achievement, and goals, and participation, and on an equal basis to boys – but direct them around the time of the Lerwick UHA into the kitchen instead of marching and guizing. Equality is nowhere unless it is everywhere; and equal rights to participate don’t take away the existing rights of others to do so.

The bigger Lerwick UHA gets and the better known it becomes, and the more people start to talk about building a wider Viking festival around the Lerwick UHA, the more questions will start to be raised about the desire to make the event ‘more public’ – surely a euphemism for allowing women and girls to march. The exclusion of women and girls from marching in the Lerwick UHA, and their confinement to roles instead in the halls, not least the kitchens, will come under ever-closer scrutiny. Those defending the status quo will need to come up with some proper answers than that things should ‘stay the same’.

#LetWomenMarch