Vodafone and the flash-mob rebels

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.

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6 Responses to Vodafone and the flash-mob rebels

  1. Pingback: Vodafone and the flash-mob rebels - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. garethmjones says:

    Hi Rick. Great post. Like everything, the hype takes over and i personally believe social media will be a case of evolution not necessarily revolution, both in terms of changing business practices and things like the ‘movement’ situation you mention above.

    However, i do think Gladwell has written off SM too soon. And i do think that it will make a big impact on how we all participate in the issues that matter. Before, we as individuals tended to sit in our front rooms and partake in “armchair protests”, muttering “that’s awful” and “shouldn’t be allowed” but largely not getting involved because we either couldn’t be bothered because it was too much effort or we figured we would leave it to the professionals – in this case the hardened ‘left wingers’ as you call them.

    SM not only raises the profile of these issues to folk who are not watching the news and therefore might not be aware of it, it also has a way of galvanising spirit because we are all connected. Realtime. You don’t have to wait until you are down the pub the following evening to discuss it, by which time you have moved on to more important things like the weather.

    Dont under estimate the power of the crowd. Especially the crowd that is now ‘super connected’.

  3. Cian says:

    Doesn’t the Tea Party movement in the US kind of disprove Gladwell’s thesis? Or for that matter the anti-globalization movement.

    Having used “social media” for about fifteen years (what was usenet after all), I think the most significant thing about it is that it lowers the barriers to finding like minded people. So if you’re angry about a particular topic, as these people were, its fairly trivial to find like minded people with minimal investment of time/energy.

    However the other thing that successful movements need is organisation and a certain amount of discipline, at least among the core. And if anything social media is corrosive of that. I guess what you need is a small, social media savvy, Leninist rump. Or several of them, like the anti-globalization movement has had.

  4. Wendy Tagg says:

    Hi Rick. A really insightful post.

    One of the things I found really interesting about this story of both tax avoidance and protest is how badly it has been reported by mainstream media. On Twitter the #ukuncut tag trended nearly all day, yet my usual old media failed to tell me about the story at all. I have been left glaring at today’s newspaper wondering why I paid a pound for a newspaper that is not telling me the news.

    In his New Yorker Article, Gladwell says that the weak ties created by social networks are not enough to support real change. I really think that Gladwell is missing the point, which is that Social Media is getting stories out that tend to be neglected by a mainsteam media. This enables people to understand what is going on and to participate if they wish. Once they have participated, ties will strengthen.

    Rick says “And, if the campaigners are really serious, there will be a next time.” You might find it interesting to search twitter for #ukuncut to see how the story is developing.

  5. BendyGirl says:

    Hi Rick,

    Social media is revolutionising the way disabled people are able to organise and protest as we are seeing from the response to our new The Broken Of Britain campaign. We have so many volunteers we can’t organise quickly enough to assign everyone jobs but we will get there. Most disabled people aren’t able to attend protests in the real world, we don’t have the equipment or assistance we need to go out and it’s far riskier for us physically to demonstrate in person. We know the internet though and the thousands of visitors to our blog since Sunday tell us we’re doing the right thing.
    With time we intend BofB to become a think tank/lobby group, hopefully successful enough to offer home based employment to disabled people. Social media enables disabled people in a way nothing has done before.

    The Broken Of Britain. You Cut. We Bleed.

  6. Cian says:

    Once they have participated, ties will strengthen.

    Perhaps. This hasn’t really happened with similar movements in the past though.

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