And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

One click to achieve absolute apathy

Anyone following the news of late will be familiar with the UK governments’ efforts to pass a bill reforming the NHS, apparently in order to save it, but in the minds of sceptics and apparently most health professionals, it’s more likely to destroy it. David Cameron is being accused of violating a pre-election promise not to change the constitution of our national health service and deputy PM Nick Clegg is once again labelled a turncoat and a coward for not standing up to his coalition mates in the Conservative party.

A tweet appeared in my feed this morning by writer Caitlin Moran, advising her many followers to visit a site called The Green Benches, run by a Dr. Éoin Clarke. The site brands itself “your complete one click kit to saving the NHS”.

Now, let’s be clear: the NHS Bill is a pile of nonsense and shouldn’t pass. And anybody making efforts to fight it should be commended for their efforts. But. There’s always a But.

The site, tastefully designed in the vintage style of the late 90s, consists of a couple of dropdown boxes where users can select MPs who’ll be voting on the bill, and then send them a pre-written email protesting it. They can then scroll down and click an automatic Tweet button, which sends the same generic sentence to the Lord / MP of their choice (some 20 or so selections).

As of writing, the site’s similarly retro hit counter boasts over 900,000 visitors, presumably a good few of them choosing to participate in the ridiculously-simplified process. The cynic in me notes that the site itself is prominently loaded with logos for “Labour Left”, and twice asks visitors to sign a pledge stating they won’t vote Lib Dem again if the bill passes, but we’ll assume no ulterior motives here.

So what’s the problem? Well, we’ve been here before. Remember the disputed Iranian elections a few years ago? You know, the ones where social media brought down fascism. Or something. Twitter users confounded the Iranian censors by changing their locations to Tehran, and some wags even changed their avatars to a green-hued tint to support democratic elections. So far, so social, if we understand social to mean “half-arsed and convenience-driven”.

Do we really think MPs and Lords are going to take seriously a couple of thousand of pre-written tweets coming at them in waves as each celebrity notices the trending topic and figures their political credentials could do with a refresh? Likewise the emails — almost every other similar site to Green Benches that I’ve seen at least asks users to customise the form letter a little, make it their own. This one doesn’t even let you edit it before you send it.

Sites like this are fantastic at letting people continue to sit on their arses and pontificate online about how shit the Tories are, then get the feelgood factor when they spam a few dozen politicians with barely-read filler text. The politicians and those on the receiving end of this cavalcade of spam will simply treat it with the lack of care and attention that the people sending it to them did. They will ignore it.

The digital age has ushered in some of the most exciting and challenging developments in human history. As a tool for organising and spreading stories, it’s unrivalled. As a tool for allowing people to take the easiest possible way out, or to make the least imaginable effort to understand a topic, though, it’s top of the list. Kudos to Clarke for attempting to make an impact, but perhaps a few things could have been considered beforehand:

  1. If you don’t give people the chance to add their own voice, then your protest is as weak as 1 voice, not 1 million.
  2. A tagline like “one click to save the NHS” is not only laughably hubristic, but emphasises all of the worst aspects of the idea.
  3. The more we reinforce the idea that connecting social media to the protest and demonstration movement can only be about sending a few emails or tweets, the less chance we have of ever effecting real change through it.

The London riots, for all their negativity, did prove one thing. Small, interlinked groups of people, all over the country, were able to organise and unify, outrun the police, and achieve their goals, all through social media. Clearly I’m not advocating burning shops down or looting JD Sports, but they certainly didn’t waste time sending prewritten tweets to MPs. There are debates to be had about direct action or the more disruptive forms of social protest, and I’m not the man to argue them, but it’s pretty clear to me that we need to make a bit more of an effort if we want to save our NHS. One click just isn’t worth the keypress.