Facebook: the Force Multiplier of social conservatism

Online reaction to the dismantling of the Occupy Dame Street camp paints a picture of a generation that aggressively condemns those who attempt to strike out and make a change. By David Johnson.

By now you all will no doubt have read the reports and seen the footage of the #OccupyDameStreet eviction. Early on Thursday morning, sometime between 3am and 3:30, upwards of 100 gardaí sealed off all access to Dame Street from College Green, George's Street and Temple Bar, and moved in without warning to dismantle the camp. Reports from those resident in the camp at the time tell of black-clad armed police bundling people out of the kitchen, injuring a young woman in the process. Another resident spoke of being awoken in his shack by a pick-axe smashing through the walls before being dragged out and given no time to grab his clothing or phone. Around fifteen residents were forcibly removed and had to stand by helplessly while two lorries with mechanical digger attachments ripped through the camp, demolishing the structures and carting it all away to be dumped somewhere.

To say that the police response was disproportionate is a bit of an understatement, especially when it would appear that the motivation for dismantling the camp were commercial considerations over the staging of the St Patrick's Day Parade – seemingly Minister Vardakhar and his Fine Gael colleagues (most of whom will not be in Ireland on the day itself mind you, enjoying taxpayer funded junkets abroad to tug the forelock at both our new and potential economic masters) were embarrassed that the world might see that not every Irish person is content to sit back and suffer in silence the indignities placed upon our shoulders.

That the camp would be destroyed was almost a certainty from the start; an authoritarian system is not going to allow a parallel social and economic model to thrive at its centre, living refutation of its mantra that "there is no alternative". If anything the wonder is that the camp was allowed to exist for five months during one of the most turbulent periods in our recent history. The big surprise for me in all this has been the reaction, particularly online, to news of the camp's destruction, which from some quarters starts with smug satisfaction and then quickly ramps up to triumphant jubilation.

A quick read through the comments on sites such as TheJournal.ie and Broadsheet not to mention of #OccupyDameStreet's own Facebook page, show the voices of sympathy almost drowned out by a chorus of trolls bleating out refrains of "get a job you communist" and "Take a bath, you dirty hippies." The vitriol is quite staggering, and, I have to say, altogether rather alarming.

Why is such hatred being expressed online towards a small group of people who took a stand and tried to make things better? The worst accusation that could be leveled at #OccupyDameStreet is that in the end it was ultimately ineffective; that it didn't realise its potential for being the mass-movement for social change that those first few weeks back in October hinted at; that it failed to seize opportunities for working with wider groups; that all too often its gaze was focused narrowly inwards, not outwards; that it failed to see the bigger picture. But the majority of the attacks levelled against it are not for failing, but for even daring to try in the first place.

The Irish internet is awash with trolls, that much is certain. A well-known tactic is for groups and individuals to create pop-up email and Twitter accounts purely for the purpose of pushing a particular agenda in the comments fields of online media sites, forums and social networks. And then there are those who simply like causing trouble for the sake of it. Political debate on Politics.ie or Boards.ie frequently descends into accusations that one of more of the participants is shilling for a particular party; while some wear their colours on their sleeves, others are far more circumspect.

The tactic of camouflaged online campaigns is widespread in Ireland, sometimes overtly - as when in 2009 invitations were sent out to the Irish internet community from Strawberry Media for a talk to be given by Joe Rospars, Obama's New Media Director during his successful election campaign, which turned out to be a soft launch for Fianna Fáil's new website (much to everyone's annoyance) - but most often covertly, as with the recent Twittergate scandal that helped derail Seán Gallagher's presidential campaign. Whether the offending tweet read out during the live debate was the work of a lone gunman on an online grassy knoll or the orchestrated act of a political rival we may never know, but the strength of the online commentator coupled with the lack of understanding of new media by the old was amply illustrated.

During the George W. era, the Pentagon had a tactic of using retired generals as unofficial spokespeople. These former military leaders would be given briefings on what the message of the day was, and they then appeared on the various news networks offering supposedly impartial analysis. The Pentagon called these generals "Force Multipliers", as they greatly increased the effectiveness of the Pentagon's PR strategy by reinforcing the official line while maintaining the pretence of a neutral position. While the Gallagher tweet may never be proven to be the work of a particular party, it would seem obvious that all major parties have their own online Force Multipliers, and that they used the Tweetgate incident to great effect.

However it would be an act of paranoia to suggest that all of the hatred being directed towards #OccupyDameStreet is the work of an organised campaign, although that would make it easier to dismiss. Nor can it simply be attributed to the triumphalism of other groups on the Left that Dame Street rejected at a very early stage, though there may indeed be some element of that on the part of a handful of individuals. My sad conclusion is that many of these comments are simply from ordinary folks, and judging from the profile pictures (if they are indeed real) and language used, many of these commentators are in their late teens to mid twenties - exactly the demographic you would expect to be out supporting a radical alternative movement.

Ireland is a deeply conservative country, both socially and politically, that much we know. What surprises me is just how conservative the youth of the country are.

I'm 39 now (how painful it is to see that in print), but being 19 or 29 is actually not all that long ago. Aged 19 all I was really focused on was drink, girls and drinking with girls. I was arrogant and opinionated, and a bit of a jerk (nice to see some things haven't changed with age at all, at all). I knew everything, and wanted everyone around me to realise exactly how amazing I was, especially in comparison to them. Luckily for the world around me I was limited to sharing my brilliance with those within immediate earshot of me, for this was the dawn of the internet age - where email accounts were a rarity and bulletin boards the preserve of a few geeks. Today's young geniuses have no such limitations, born as they are with a silver mouse in their mouth, and their wit and wisdom can now be shared instantly with a billion people at the touch of a button.

But in between the drinking, the girls and the drinking with girls, I found the time to go marching. At 22 I was marching, at 23 I was chaining myself to the railings of the Department of Education and being chased down the street by Youth Defense thugs wielding hurleys, at 24 I was in the Supreme Court campaigning for a woman's right to choose, and by the time I hit the ripe old age of 27 I was in Prague being assaulted by riot police while protesting against the IMF. Drinking and girls didn't stop me from protesting - if anything the three were quite complimentary.

Now I'm 39, haven't had a drink in over a year, have been with the same woman for 15 years and my life revolves around spreadsheets and presentations, but it seems that I still experience more revolutionary fervour over a cup of tea in the morning than the average Irish twenty-something does in an entire year.

What is wrong with this picture?

How have we arrived at a situation where the banks, developers and politicians who have destroyed this country can still maintain the reins of power, and those who resist are condemned by their fellow citizens, by the youth who will be shouldering this burden far longer than I will? How can a generation be so conservative? Its not just that they are self-absorbed and lethargic, (every generation has falsely accused the subsequent one of apathy and listlessness), it is the fact that through their words the online commentators paint a picture of a generation that aggressively condemns any who attempt to strike out and make a change. Perhaps this is the way they break with their parents - by rebelling through conformity?

I saw an interview with Dutch director Paul Verhoeven where he explained that he had always wanted to make a film about a group of school friends that joined the Hitler Youth, showing how ordinary kids through bonds of friendship, a snappy advertising campaign and the approval of an authoritarian society around them would willingly and enthusiastically embrace something of unimaginable evil, but he knew that this film would never get made. Then someone handed him the script for Starship Troopers.

Now I don't want to fall foul of Godwin's Law here, so let me instead reference Heinlein's original book (the basis for Verhoeven's film) or maybe Mean Girls, and suggest that the notion of a rebellious youth is just another advertising ploy dreamed up in the 60s on Madison Avenue, and that the default condition of young folks is actually to conform, to be part of the crowd and to never, ever stand out. If the majority of their friends are riding to Brighton on mopeds, then that's what they want to do, if they're paying €200 to go to Oxegen and vomit Jaegermeister all over a gravel car park, then that's what they want to do. And if they see a group of their peers laughing triumphantly at the demise of a protest group, then that's what they want to do too.

Never stand out, always be the first to fit in; what the internet does is shift the enforcing bonds of acceptable social behaviour from a small group of peers known in real life to a much wider group, and increasing the size of this pressure group ultimately engenders a far more restricted set of acceptable behaviours.

I'm starting to believe that growing up in the Facebook age stifles creativity and enforces conformity at a level that perhaps no other generation has had to face. Existing in an always-on world with no separation between their online and offline lives forces Gen Z into a homogenised and conservative existence that a despotic autocrat could only dream of, and the worst part of it all is that this is not a mental slavery imposed from above, they are shackles willingly and enthusiastically donned, each "Like", each "Share" another nail in the coffin of their individual autonomy.

Facebook is the Force Multiplier of social conservatism, and we are all the poorer for it.

Image top: Sean MacEntee.