Guest post: Lobbying your Political Representative

This is a guest post by Puffles the Whitehall Dragon Fairy. Puffles is a Whitehall insider who tweets under the name Puffles2010. This post was first published on the website of UK Uncut and is reproduced here with permission.

Puffles the Dragon Fairy notes that everyone found out the hard way what happens if we do not keep tabs on our elected representatives: they end up doing stupid things, like claiming expenses for duck houses or moat cleaning, rather than holding central and local government to account.

As you may be aware, Puffles buzzes around Whitehall and keeps tabs on a small but friendly group of public servants. They have helped Puffles come up with this guide for people who want to lobby their MPs and Councillors. Continue reading “Guest post: Lobbying your Political Representative”

A collection of videos from inside the 9th december protests

This is a small selection of videos from the protests on the 9th december in London. Most show police hitting unarmed protesters, in many cases unable to leave the area. Nearly all of these events were unreported in mainstream news media.

Continue reading “A collection of videos from inside the 9th december protests”

The Twitter news frenzy

The news media has been telling people that recent protests have been organised via twitter. That was spot on, but their attempts at explaining how have not been so accurate. For the people that don’t know, here is my explanation.

Twitter lets its users post a public message (tweet) of 140 characters in length. Those messages are automatically seen by their followers. Anyone can follow any other Twitter user and their tweets will be displayed in their “Twitter stream.” A tweet can also be aimed at or mention a person by including their name prefixed with an @ symbol. For example “@latentexistence Hello Steve!”

In addition, tweets can contain a subject prefixed with a # (a hash) and that is called a hashtag. Clicking on a hashtag brings up a list of all the other tweets containing the same hashtag. In this way it is possible to see a stream of tweets on a given topic. The most popular hashtags at any one time are called Trending Topics. Twitter shows a list of these on the front page. Finally, if a person likes a tweet they can “retweet” it which will send it out to all of their followers.

While most tweets are just inane chatter, many complete rubbish, a tweet that contains concise, well-written information, a link, a picture or a video, and that has the right hashtag is likely to be retweeted by a good percentage of people that see it. In turn it can be retweeted by their followers too. There are some people that have much more influence than others often because of the speed of their information or the quality of presentation, and these people tend to have more followers than average, and achieve far more retweets then others.

When a good tweet with a hashtag appears,  it can be retweeted over and over again because the tweet appears in the search for a given hashtag. Someone sees it, likes it and retweets it. Since the retweet also has the hashtag, the tweet appears in the twitter stream again and the whole process repeats. A really popular tweet can appear over and over again for hours.

This whole process goes in to overdrive when it comes to protests. It starts with getting the people there. Many people in search of a protest to attend ask about it on twitter. They are usually directed to the relevant hashtag such as #dayx3 or #ukuncut, and from there to the relevant website or facebook event. On the day of the protests, people start tweeting with those hashtags and anyone watching will see a steady stream of people announcing that they are on their way and how they have prepared.

Later on as the protests start people that are their take photos, videos, and send them to twitter along with their observations, in 140 character form. Other people watching at home will then retweet a lot of it to their followers and of course with the appropriate hashtag. That loop of tweet – hashtag – retweet becomes the main driver of the important information. In many cases people at the protest are sending out information about where they are, where they are going and what the police are doing is picked up by other protesters and acted upon.

During yesterdays protests the police announced that protesters were free to leave the crowd if they left via Whitehall. This information was given to the crowd through loud hailers, but also announced by the police via twitter. It was of course picked up by many people watching and retweeted. Unfortunately for the people that trusted the police and wanted to leave, they were met with batons and charging horses. Word quickly spread through twitter that in fact many people could not leave.

There are dangers to this system though, as I myself found last night. A photo was taken some time before midnight, of the thousands kettled on Westminster bridge. That photo was sent out on twitter with the message that although the police were still holding those people in freezing conditions, without toilet facilities or food and water, the tv news channels were completely ignoring it. The message was of course retweeted. Unfortunately there was no timestamp on anything, and so the message was also retweeted at about 12:45, by which point the protesters had been allowed to leave. I commented on the cruelty and legality of this containment at 12:50, and my own comment was picked up and started to be retweeted in that feedback loop of hashtags, eventually reaching 34 retweets and a cascade of other comments. Some time later although I commented that we had no up to date information, people were still convinced that the crowd was being held and it was only when someone tweeted that they had been able to cross the bridge that twitter calmed down and believed that the kettle was over.

Twitter is a wonderful tool for coordination through crowdsourcing, an incredibly fast way of getting news hours before the BBC or Sky news catches up, and fantastic for sharing information. It’s downfall is the way in which information is given too much trust, and fact checking is poor, sometimes even on my part.

A leaderless fight

Police yesterday said that the protests deviated from the “arranged route.” This fact was used as a reason to kettle several thousand protesters in various parts of London, particularly for six or more hours on Westminster bridge.

The problem is, their claim is rubbish.

The recent protests have not been any one group, but hundreds of groups in towns and cities all over the UK. Those groups are organised through Facebook groups and events, through conversation on twitter, through email, text message and word of mouth. The action of any “leaders” extend as far as sending out a message as to time and place, and maybe creating a facebook event. Decisions such as which direction to march in have been made spontaneously in reaction to actions by the police and informed by information shared between protesters and people at home via Twitter.

I am sure that the police did speak to someone claiming to be in charge and they probably did arrange a route with them, but whoever it was had no say in what most of the protesters did yesterday, because these protests have no leader. Or perhaps they have hundreds.

Serious questions for people that vote conservative

I would be very interested in what conservative voters think on these questions. I know some good people that are conservative, and I am struggling to understand the thinking.
  1. What do you think are society’s obligations to the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged?
  2. Do you think that current cuts will impact the above? If yes, is it unavoidable? If no, why not?
  3. At what point is the cut off point beyond which a person should not get any help?
  4. Do you believe that state has any role in this help, or should it all be personal generosity?
  5. What do you think should happen if personal generosity does not cover required help?

Anyone that does not feel comfortable answering in a comment is welcome to contact me by email if you know my address or via the contact page shown on the top right.

The right to protest, even if it’s inconvenient

This is a quote from a conversation I had today. I hope the other participant will forgive me for reproducing it here.

“Although the right to protest is enshrined in law, the money spent policing these demos will have to be found somewhere and as there is only a finite amount of money someone somewhere will suffer…having to find money to police protests will affect the poorest.”

I had to stop to think about it. It’s true, of course, to a certain extent. Protests on the scale of those against the tuition fee increases will be attended by the police, and like most of our public services, they are extremely inefficient and will run up a horrendous bill in the process.

Whose fault is that though? That the police see it as their job to be present at every protest in vast numbers is not the fault of the protesters. Oh, they will argue that they must be present in case there is any violence but many protesters will argue back – quite convincingly – that it is the police that aggravate the situation and often directly cause problems.

What about the result of finding that money? Assuming that the police aren’t simply left to find the money from within their existing budgets, the current government will have no qualms about taking the money by cutting public services and benefits. To be honest, they’re going to do that anyway because, well, I don’t know what the thinking is there. My MP told me yesterday “Well I guess I won’t persuade you, but I see something completely different, with the vulnerable protected.” I can only conclude that conservatives see different things to what liberals and socialists see.

So will protesting cost money? Yes. But it will cost more than it should because the police seem to feel that it is their job to clamp down on protests.

Will that money come from public services that affect the poor? Absolutely. But that money would be taken away anyway.

Should this stop anyone from protesting? HELL NO! The right to protest is absolute and we cannot have a democracy without it. These protests against tuition fees, tax avoiders and government cuts are making a difference! MP’s have resigned, have changed their minds, have gone in to a panic over this. Keep protesting. Your country needs you.

Nothing to hide? I pity you.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

If there is anything that you need to fear, then that famous statement is it. Everyone has something to hide. For a start, people want to hide financial and security information. Their bank balance, salary and passwords. People want to hide embarrasing things about themselves, such as personality traits, sexual preferences (and not just gay or straight) and their body. People want to hide little habits that are perfectly innocuous but make sense only to themselves. People want to hide their hidden insecurities, their weaknesses and their flaws. People want to hide secrets that have been told to them in confidence. How often have you asked someone “Can you keep a secret?”

People want to hide things just because it’s none of anyone else’s business.

Think about passing through an airport. The security guard picks you to search. How do you feel as he goes through your bag? As he touches your toiletries, handles your underwear, looks through the book you are reading. Do you feel happy? Comfortable? Or, more likely, slightly embarrassed and resigned to it happening? Worse, you might be selected for a pat-down, or if you’re in America and really unlucky, one of the new TSA open-handed pat-downs.

The truth is, we have everything to hide. Take the aftermath of the case of Paul Chambers and his famous tweet about an airport. Now that it has been found ‘menacing’ by a judge, I catch myself thinking every time I write anything, could this be misinterpreted? Could some bureaucrat see this and decide to question me on it? My friends and I have little joke conversations about taking over the world. About blowing things up. About getting revenge of some kind. And that’s all they are. Jokes. But now there is the risk that I will have to explain those conversations to some government official that just doesn’t get it. It’s not their fault, their mind is just not on the same wavelength as me and my friends, but the result could be that they decide we really are planning to install an evil overlord with a white fluffy cat and sharks with frikken laser beams and hold the world to ransom until they promise to stop being stupid. And that, I really don’t want to have to explain to the police. (Clever me, putting all this on a blog post, eh?)

The famous “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is insidious. It opens the way for gentle intrusions in to our privacy in the name of protecting us from the bad people. But it leaves us at the top of a treacherous slope and the climb back is not easy. Once we give away our right to privacy we live in a different world, once every bit as bad as any totalitarian state that you might have read about or seen in films.

Little Brother: find out what you have to lose.

Earlier this week my wife was reading a book by Cory Doctorow. She showed me a note inside the book, which said something like “A free download of this book is available under the creative commons license from the website.” Having recently got a Kindle ebook reader, and having no money, this seemed like a good idea and so purely by chance, I ended up reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

Before I write a proper review of it,  all I can think to write is GO AND READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW.

The book tells the story of a teenage boy that is swept up the the US Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Imprisoned, mistreated, then released without charge, he tries to return to normal life but notices the authorities turning his city in to hell in the name of fighting terrorism.  This is a story about fighting for freedom, fighting for a normal life, and fighting against government authorities undertaking horrific acts all the while imagining that they are doing the right thing. So many aspects of this book ring true. Teenagers and kids getting fed up with government. The use of the internet to organise things. Personal video recordings showing things that the mainstream news media does not. The scenes where riot police used CS gas on a crowd of hundreds of teenagers were just a little too possible for comfort.

This book, gripped me, made me laugh at the antics, made me cry at the bravery and freaked me out at the portrayal of how easily people can commit atrocities in the name of good. (Admittedly, i currently have some kind of cold/flu/virus thing and a fever, so the emotional roller coaster might be caused by that.)

If you are disillusioned by the current state of affairs, read this. If you are not, read this and then ask the question “how far are we from events like those in this book?” Little Brother is essential reading to find out what you have to lose.

You can get this book, and others, free of charge from Doctorow’s website. If you don’t have an ebook reader then there are a vast number of ereader apps for phones and computers. I can suggest Calibre if you are using a PC. Oh, and if you like the book, go and buy it. Prove the authors theory on copyright correct.

Operation Trashvote: a solution to bad government?

It is clear that the main parties lie to get in power and then renege on their promises, and with the current voting system (First Past The Post) there is little chance of electing smaller parties or independants. The solution may well be proportional representation but MPs are unlikely to support that if it means they might not be re-elected.

Voter turnout at the last election was 65.1%. I know of an awful lot of people that will not vote in elections because they think it’s pointless. I disagree with that. Refusing to vote is seen by the goverment as apathy. Spoiling the ballot paper, on the other hand, is actually counted and reported.

Here is what I propose. At the next election, if you were not going to vote, go in anyway and spoil your ballot paper. Moreover, everyone should spoil it in the same way. The ballot papers will be destroyed, but the people doing the counting will notice the pattern and might say something. Yes, you still need to register to vote. No, it won’t help choose the government at the election. What it will do, is gather clear statistics on just how many people are unhappy with the current system.

I am proposing to call it Operation Trashvote. It would need a large campaign, starting on social media but then spreading out via the news media, protests and publicity stunts. The campaign should start as soon as an election is announced. (Hopefully sooner rather than later, if the coalition breaks down.) It will only work if hundreds of thousands of people go out and promote it. If Facebook can get a song to the Christmas number one, and Twitter can raise thousands for the #twitterjoketrial, then we can do this.

Just to be clear, if you were going to vote for a party or person, do it. I think this campaign should be aimed at the people that were not going to vote at all. Make your wasted vote count!

Would you support this? Would you be prepared to help campaign for it? Do you think it should be done slightly differently? Comments are open below, so get talking!