BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
Throughout History power has been shaped by the Crowd. Whether the Bolshevik hordes or Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt, when the masses marched and massed in sufficient numbers in valuable locations they succeeded in altering the status quo.
Often their countrymen would not hear about changes affecting them because of the actions of the Crowd until many days or weeks later; when historic news was transported by talkative travellers or relayed by witnesses; often by patched-up, returning militias.
For as far back as History allows us to remember, the Crowd has been the great anvil of our world.
The Crowd has overthrown monarchies, as in France, reversed Government decisions like the poll tax in Britain, articulated for the Countryside in the Countryside March of 2002, and put the fear of God into myriad dictators the world over.
Benito Mussolini – unwittingly predicting his own brutal demise at the hands of the Crowd – once reflected, “The mass, whether it be a crowd or an army, is vile.”
I contend that, as Web coverage sweeps those places it has yet to dominate, the influence of the physical Crowd will die out almost altogether in our world. The holders of Power will increasingly ignore the physical Crowd. The Crowd will become nothing more than mere protest group – heard by some; listened to by fewer – which can be out-trumped in influence generation by well-placed memes and intelligent viral PR campaigns.
“That’s rubbish!”, I hear some cry. Recently, during the Arab Spring, crowds toppled dictators! And commentators everywhere remarked on the great strength of people power – how wave upon wave of protesters cannot ever be repulsed by strong men or despots. Look at how countless climate change rallies have put green policies into statute and who knocked the Berlin Wall down? The Crowd!
I go so far as to say that in the countries which already have high web coverage and where there are large physical crowds, virtual crowds always outnumber them, at least by a factor of ten.
Those who rally and march are already seen as the outsiders by the non-marching majority. One wonders these days if by holding protests and by forming Crowds the raison d’être of crowd formation automatically gets diminished against the backcloth of public opinion. Those who attend rallies are seen as weird – they should have a cup of tea and leave a comment like everyone else in the comments section of a newspaper or write a letter. If the majority are not with the Crowd, then the physical crowd is essentially a pointless phenomenon. It’s as good as dead.
In America, thousands march the streets and many riot after the Trump election victory but this gets them nowhere. In Britain, large crowds gather at Corbyn rallies to lap up Labour’s arsenic-lined socialist sweeties but Corbyn’s poll numbers are dire – with each rally it seems he gets further away from power. In Germany, Pegida rallies against what they deem Islamic invasion but most Germans – including Merkel’s Government – are not swayed by what they see and hear. Even David Icke drums up quite the Crowd.
In those lands with mass web coverage, genuine influence-changing nowadays must be more than a mere physical Crowd. It must be the masses mobilised through the web and media to go out and vote. It must be the shy voters, who might well lie about their intentions to pollsters, but score revolution in casting their vote. One of Sir Lynton Crosby’s dead cats tends to be more revolutionary and prevailing in an election campaign than any gathering of hundreds or even thousands of people in a Crowd.
Identifying powerful virtual crowds is almost an impossible task in the age of multiple accounts, fragmented media and overlay networks. Those with the loudest voices often inhabit their own echo chambers on Twitter and across other social media but loud rarely translates to large.
Take Britain’s Far Left and the likes of Hacked Off – loud voices on Twitter but a small physical crowd of ragtag, bruised dissidents in the real world; disaffected agitants who far from represent the powerful majority. Although their delusions would contend otherwise – hence their loud and never-ending echoes.
It used to be that to win power and influence one merely had to win over the Crowd. Now to win power one must be a mind reader to know what is actual, how people will elect and how best to deliver one’s soundbites and speeches. Power politics is no longer even just about numbers; data can’t always capture the human condition. Pollsters have an increasingly insurmountable task.
While a well-trained, well-armed physical Crowd of the clear majority with sufficient military backing will inevitably be unstoppable (as we will likely soon witness in the ongoing tragedy that is Venezuela), Crowds-turned-protest groups are increasingly mere powderpuff. Not even footnotes in the history books of the future. (It is possible also that public opinion can be so obviously swayed in one direction that a march or formation of a Crowd can be usefully ancillary to a media and web campaign – a Brexit march would be an effective tool, for example, to ensure Brexit means Brexit after public opinion has been stated by the referendum result.)
As protesters come to recognise the new reality, so, alas, the protesters’ love of rallies and Crowd-formation will diminish and terrorism will likely rise. Look at #blacklivesmatter and their quasi terrorist stance. Look how the Tamil Tigers amassed at Westminster in 2008 and were forced to arrange hunger strikes in Parliament Square to get any coverage at all. Getting one’s message across will become costlier; in a myriad of negative ways.
The Future lies in the hands of the elusive majority – no longer in the shrieks and boot-stomping of the physical Crowd.
The Crowd as history-maker, as we all knew it, is virtually dead.