Harry Giles: The Accidental Cybernat


The Telegraph says I’m “obnoxious” and “sinister”. The Daily Mail says I’m “abusive”. Both of them call me a “cybernat”. It’s all because I tweeted about an investment banker, suggesting that he should regret his decisions in life. Well, actually it’s not because of that at all – but let’s go back to the beginning.

On May the 1st the Vote No Borders campaign launched – a pro-Union campaign backed by millionaire banker and Tory donor Malcolm Offord and PR executive Fiona Gilmore. The false astroturf nature of this campaign and the disproportionate media coverage it’s received has been well dissected elsewhere – that’s annoying enough, but it wasn’t what upset me. What got to me is that the campaign appropriates the slogan and name of a long-standing anarchist campaign for freedom of movement and against immigration control – a campaign close to my heart, and a slogan I’ve often joined in chanting at demos. It felt like a personal and collective insult, especially on May Day, a day which to many is for the celebration of internationalist socialism. So, like lots of people without £110,000 to buy a grassroots campaign but with an internet connection, I took to Twitter.

Much of my time that morning was spent retweeting stories and campaigns against immigration control under the hashtag #noborders, in an effort to reclaim the slogan and push VNB’s campaigning off the Twitter timeline. I encouraged other folk to do likewise, and ended by tweeting the now-fateful words: “Please do ensure that #noborders stays a radical internationalist slogan this May Day. Make sure the banker regrets his launch date. & life.” Immediately I thought, “Ooh, that’s a bit strong, better temper it so it doesn’t look like a threat of violence,” and added “(by which I mean the way he’s lived it, not the life itself)”. That’ll do, I thought. No-one could misunderstand me now.

On May 8th, though, I came home to the absolutely delightful news that the Daily Mail had named and shamed me for that tweet in its article on the “abuse” the campaign had supposedly received. I admit, I crowed. It’s been a long-term ambition of mine to be officially hated by the Daily Mail – for someone with my politics, it is an actual badge of honour. I found it impossible to take the Mail seriously – anyone who read and believed it, I thought, wasn’t worth worrying about. But yesterday the Telegraph selectively (mis)quoted the same tweet, so I think it’s time for a reply.

Both papers call me a “Cybernat”, a term used to describe online campaigners for Scottish independence, usually in derogatory terms. This is weird, because from my timeline it should be clear that I’m neither a nationalist nor particularly a campaigner for Scottish independence – I was tweeting against the entire concept of national borders, for goodness’ sake. I am a grudging Yes vote, probably, but I don’t campaign actively for it, and whenever I lend support to Yes organisations like National Collective it’s so I can get some criticism of nationalism and the SNP in there too (which, to their credit, they give good space to). So why do both papers insist on calling me that?

It’s partly because neither journalist cares in the slightest who I am or what I said. By tweeting the seven characters “& life.”, I gave them both something they could selectively quote to make it look like I was threatening Malcolm Offord with violence of some kind, rather than, as is clear from context, suggesting through the medium of tweeting immigration policy that he should reconsider his immoral decisions in life. This isn’t my fault, particularly – if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else, because presumably either VNB or the Daily Mail had someone crawling Twitter looking for things that could be quoted out of context. Neither journalist is interested in my words or my politics – both just want to build a case that micharacterises people who speak out against the UK.

Both journalists are interested in constructing an idea of a co-ordinated army of abusive Yes campaigners, and then collapsing all criticism into that idea. It is true that there are horrible and frightening things said in the name of every political idea, including this one – and true that Yes voters are, according to a Sunday Express Survation poll, much more likely to be on the receiving end than No voters – but it’s not true that I’m doing that, and it’s not true that all or even most online comment is doing that. VNB claim they’ve closed website comments (rather than simply moderating them) due to unmanageable abuse, but a cursory look at a comments page demonstrates this to be a false, and multiple reports circulating on social media show that they’re banning even the mildest criticism from their Facebook page. The construction of “cybernat” is used to erase the difference and diversity of online opinion, so that marginal voices like mine just can’t be heard.

I’m not a nat, but I am cyber. I spend a lot of time online, and it’s a place where I find voice. I don’t see views and arguments like mine represented well in the mainstream media, but on Twitter I can have conversations with folk whose views are close enough to have some kind of mutual exchange and meaningful solidarity. When I’m angry about something, I can’t get a blog in the Telegraph in which I can call people “scruffs”, “unkempt”, “obnoxious”, “sinister” and “rabid” with impunity and without self-awareness, but I can take to Twitter and make bitter jokes and feel, for once, vaguely heard.

All that’s happening on Twitter is that thousands of people can express their voices on any given political issue without those voices being mediated by given structures of power – newspapers, television, voting booths. That expression is a threat to those who trade on those structures of power, whether it’s newspaper columnists or professional politicians. It’s a threat because it takes some of that power away, and it’s a threat because it allows dissenting views to be heard en masse in ways that were previously impossible. The cybernat is just the latest in a series of fantasy constructions designed to silence those views, hiding a diversity of opinion and debate behind a monster mask. The Telegraph literally depicts people like me as Terminator in a kilt.

I won’t apologise for the seven fateful characters. I stand up for my right to be pissed off in public. I stand up for that right over minor issues like a campaign slogan, because it keeps that right for everything and everyone else it’s precious to. You can read everything I tweeted on May 1st and 2nd here and decide for yourself whether or not I’m being an abusive cybernat. I’m certainly angry, and upset, and frustrated, and I’m up front about that. I defend my right to be angry and irrational and stupid. I stand with the scruffs, the obnoxious, the sinister and the rabid, because we’re the people who are not heard, who are deliberately silenced, and those will usually be the people who most need listening to.

Harry Giles
National Collective