We had a few disagreements about the power of social media at last week’s HR Unconference. I said that I don’t think Web 2.0 and the social networks it has spawned will cause a revolution – at least, not a revolution in the political sense. It will almost certainly make things different but it won’t upset existing power structures much. On the whole, I agree with Malcolm Gladwell that revolutions are made by groups of people committed to each other and to a cause for which they are prepared to take significant risks.
This was heresy to some of the attendees at the unconference who firmly believe that social media will drive radical social change. In the end, we agreed to differ but I’m wondering, this morning, if I might have to eat my words, or at least some of them.
Yesterday, Vodafone’s flagship store was closed down by demonstrators angry at what they saw as the company’s £6bn tax dodge. To be clear, Vodafone hasn’t done anything illegal; HMRC has confirmed that it has reached an agreement with the company to pay the tax it is deemed by the government to owe. But the protesters claim that Vodafone has breached the spirit, if not the letter, of the corporate tax system by routing some of its activities through a Luxembourg subsidiary to avoid UK tax.
This protest is interesting for a couple of reasons. The established left-wing groups were conspicuous by their absence. Some turned up at the demo but their involvement came late in the day. The action was organised almost completely on Facebook and Twitter by people who were relatively new to political activism.
Perhaps most strangely of all, the outrage seems to have started not on a left-wing blog but with an article in the Daily Mail’s finance and business offshoot This Is Money. The anger then built up in online discussions until a group of people organised yesterday’s protest and took what turned out to be very effective action.
The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny reported on the ramshackle, disorganised and almost child-like nature of the protest:
The first thing to note about this protest is that it has been organised only slightly more efficiently than a French farce: the young people currently squatting determinedly in the doorway of the Vodafone store were mobilised via Facebook and Twitter with real names and the intended target freely discussed, and by the time more experienced activists had intervened to give basic security advice, it was too late.
It is, as such, hardly surprising to see Her Majesty’s finest waiting for us on Oxford Street, but in the mad dash to dodge the police and barricade the storefront before the first customers arrive, the protesters giggle like children shocked by their own daring. This is not just the usual troublemakers making the usual nuisance of themselves. They are very young, they are very resolute, and they are certain that the left’s usual response just won’t cut it anymore.
Of course, one protest doesn’t make a revolution, or even, for that matter, a serious campaign. It remains to be seen whether the protesters are committed enough to each other and their cause, in the way that Malcolm Gladwell described, to create a sustainable movement. Things will get harder from now on. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook facilitate discussion and the dissemination of information but they are open to everyone. The authorities as well as the activists can read them. Next time, more police will be waiting and they won’t give the protesters such an easy ride.
And, if the campaigners are really serious, there will be a next time. There are plenty more targets. Vodafone is not unique. A lot of companies use similar tax avoidance strategies. Organisations from banks to retail chains could find themselves with protesters outside their doors if the people who organised yesterday’s action start taking an interest in their affairs.
This may yet be a flash in the pan. When the police get tougher, newspapers start digging into the backgrounds of the organisers and protesters get grief from their employers, we shall see just how strong this campaign is. In principle, I still agree with Malcolm Gladwell. Revolutions are made by committed people willing to take risks.
But perhaps Gladwell has written social media off too soon. It won’t change the world on its own but it might help those people who want to change the world find each other more quickly.
Update: Here is a video of yesterday’s protest, made by the organisers:
According to this Twitter page, there seem to be more protests planned. (H/T: Wendy Tagg in the comments below.)
Meanwhile, Vodafone is strenuously denying that it has a £6bn tax liability.
Apparently, there is a similar dispute going on in India too. Parmy Olson at Forbes gives some fascinating background to the case, including the suggestion that Vodafone recruited one of HMRC’s top managers to lead the negotiations with the tax authority. I reckon this story will run for a while yet.