Blogging It To The Man

“The philosopher Bertrand Russel is said to have remarked ‘metaphysicians, like savages, think words are things.’ … Under some circumstances, words are indeed things – useful things, as Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Winston Churchill demonstrated – but their importance can be overrated as compared with solid and enduring accomplishments. Great political leaders are remembered for their deeds, not their words. Few today would bother to quote even Winston Churchill’s magnificent speeches if Britain had lost the war.” – Anthony King[1]

The internet, has an unprecedented capacity for multiple connections and communications.   It has had an enormous beneficial effect on the co-ordination and organisation of aid efforts, medical research, the sharing of vital information across continents. And we all know the glamorous narrative of the internet-enabling dissent: computer nerds hacking the system, guiding flash-mobs around riot-police; the Arab spring.

But how much good can you do in the hermetically sealed, self-referential world of the social media, where words are the only substance?

Here, people don’t use the internet to facilitate their work; here, words are actions: all acts are speech acts.  Activists are influencers and demagogues. Their activity is “speaking out” and calling other people to arms. To be armed is to have words. To act is to employ words to call out, cancel or petition.

The enervated denizens of affluent countries, languishing in petulant online anomie, are most easily influenced by your words, or inspired by your ardour. I guess it passes the time, and it’s easy for them to join your campaigns. It’s easy for you, too: You are preaching to the choir.

Those who rely on social media for their career, or communities, or their sense of self-worth and importance are also the most vulnerable to being abused or cancelled. Attacks can have a devastating effect on them. If they say unacceptable things they can quickly be brought to heel. 

So, yes, internet campaigns can have great influence on celebrities and businesses that value their online brand image. The landscape of relationships on social media can change daily, and this can cause real change in the world. 

However, to affect somebody with your words, they need to be receptive. They must be partly on-message already, so how deep rooted and lasting these changes will be remains to be seen. Because, sometimes, your opponents aren’t online, or don’t care. Or just aren’t listening. 

[1] Who Governs Britain? 2015 London: Penguin, pp280-1. King is cautioning parliamentary politicians who are sometimes able to make substantive changes to how nations operate.

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