As Preston Byrne, a legal fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, pointed out a few weeks ago, the Taliban had been quietly preparing the citizens of Afghanistan for their takeover via WhatsApp for a good while before it actually happened.
But they’re not the only radical forces who make proficient use of technology to organise – our own home-grown loonies are doing the same thing over on this side of the world too, albeit in quite a different way.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) has a comprehensive network of people in place to ‘support’ their members who are arrested – for behaving disgracefully, generally-speaking – which is all co-ordinated over WhatsApp and with the aid of a ‘back office’.
Using a map of local police stations and a veritable patchwork of WhatsApp groups around the country (all wide open), they have a vast operation in place to ensure maximum peace of mind for anyone who gets arrested. There’s even an hour’s worth of online training on all this for people to familiarise themselves with!
After all, you’ll feel a lot more confident chaining yourself to the nearest available railing if you know that dozens or even hundreds of people have got your back, won’t you?
Why worry about causing considerable criminal damage to someone else’s property, like smashing their windows in, if you know that ‘Police Station Support’ will be coming to your aid?
And forming part of a human chain that’s blocking an ambulance from getting to an innocent person in desperate need is far more of a breeze when you can be sure there’ll be someone to provide ‘emotional support’ and find you somewhere to stay after your outrageous ordeal of being held to account by the state for your own iniquitous behaviour, isn’t it?
Nor are Extinction Rebellion the only people on the Left who make some very effective use of online tools to maintain their movement’s integrity. Two years ago, Momentum had a tool called My Campaign Map (pretty blank nowadays), which performed much the same function as XR’s one. During the last General Election campaign, you could type in your postcode and it would show you your nearest marginal seat to go and campaign in.
There were also plenty of WhatsApp groups to join to help organise the activism, and there was the ‘Labour Legends’ initiative, whereby activists would be matched up with hosts in a marginal seat to put them up for a couple of weeks while they went out on the streets every day to campaign.
(Shame none of that came to much… all of that annual leave might have been put to better use not being a nuisance to ordinary folk who’d rather not see a terrorist-sympathiser in Number 10!)
But of course, there’s plenty more mischief you can get up to that’s co-ordinated online too – such as planning a mass betting initiative in a bid to swing the election result, or getting all your activists to distribute illegal leaflets… and none of it with a shred of conscience.
All of these kinds of tactics probably feel pretty justifiable if you believe you’re part of a mass movement to ‘save the world’ – the notion that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions doesn’t seem to have caught on with this lot.
Then again, as we can see from a recent XR event, the kinds of people who genuinely seem to believe that ‘celebrating global art, music, food, dance and stories in the UK’ is somehow going to do anything at all to ‘take action against climate breakdown’, while leaving behind another 120 tons of rubbish, were probably never going to have all that much going on upstairs.
Hippies always did think they could change the world with their music, though – it’s just that we used to pay a lot less attention to them, back when the world was a good deal less crazy.
In fairness, it’s not as though you can blame these people – or anyone else – for using any tools they can get their hands on to co-ordinate their movement’s activities. Indeed, the planning and effort that goes into it is quite extraordinary. But it does seem striking how it’s pretty much only the one side of politics that does this, and hardly ever the other.
Perhaps if the ordinary folk with some common sense who just want to get on with their lives could do much the same kind of thing to counter it, the online battlefield between Left and Right would be a lot more level. At the moment, there is no answer to the Left’s considerable organisational capacity from the other side.
I happen to know the MoD believes that whichever side can make the best use of digital technology will win the next war. Let’s hope that doesn’t play out on the political battlefield too.