Tweeting truth to power


Good grief there was a lot of puffed-up wailing from certain regions of the Bullyland yesterday.

Early last week our colleagues in harm reduction – Action on Smoking and Health – on being alerted to the existence of a spoof twitter account (@tobaccotacticss) photoshopping their copyrighted material (to make tobacco control groups look like they operate to some dastardly evil, underhand agenda) politely requested the offending content be removed. Yesterday their complaint successfully resulted in the account being suspended. Well, the howls of outrage! The snorts of umbrage! You’d be forgiven for thinking we were in Soviet Russia listening to the righteous cries of dissidents bludgeoned into silence by the iron fist of totalitarian repression (which is indeed what a lot of silly people were comparing it to).

Nonsense. Why? Two words: power-relations.

The thing is, to be classed as satire you need to be punching up at the powerful – say, Big Tobacco – not down at the powerless – say, groups trying to reign in the powers of Big Tobacco. You might call this Satire 101. Get this basic power-relationship wrong and, sorry to say, what you’re doing is no more noble and liberating than the most abject bullying and, more importantly, no more subject to freedom-of-speech type protection than that sort of nasty behaviour either.

However, we mustn’t crow too loudly, as much as we’d like to. Since it began in 2006 Twitter has been the outlet of choice for many genuinely satirical barks at authority from people genuinely tweeting truth to power and it would be a crime if these dunderheads wrong-footed Twitter into clamping down indiscriminately (and we cheered it along).

Early last year for example, the platform was stormed by two brilliant spoof accounts pretending to emanate from newly formed energy lobbying group ‘Powerline’, lobbing such gems at us as:

Proper satire done well, as the above so brilliantly demonstrates, is always a weapon against the bullies and it must be allowed to flourish as widely as possible. Life-enhancing, wrong-righting, power-redistributing and joyous for all the right reasons, good satire lodges in your heart like good music. This is why, like certain songs from our youth, most of us can often recall the first time we ever experienced it.

My first memory of the liberating thwack of satire was when I was, I guess, about 10 years old, on break, situated up one corner of my new (grammar) school’s long and grim grey yard. Barracked and shoved all morning by a particularly irritable character, with the tacit approval of perhaps sixty or seventy other pupils—for, astonishingly, being so impertinent as to suggest this moomin might be better off occasionally eating some fruit instead of his interminable break-time pork scratchings—my friend Thomas, (we’d transferred from Charterhouse at exactly the same time) decided to get his own back on the oaf with his own version of an elbow to the ribs. “Just before you do that again,” he said, jerking his shoulder back to avoid another shove, eyebrow raised above a slightly glinting eye, “have you ever heard of Zeno’s paradox?”

Jones (the bully’s name), perhaps predictably, hadn’t. He had heard of zero, the number, with an ‘r’ in it, but not Zeno with an ‘n’, a confusion that provided several minutes of its own amusement but nothing in comparison to Thomas’s bulging main course. “Well,” Thomas eventually explained, “Zeno said that if you think about it, you can always divide the distance you have left to travel somewhere by two, meaning you never really arrive. So in a way, your hand never really reaches my shoulder.” Bam! As I said, the most exquisite brain-over-brawn, David-vs-Goliath moment I had ever experienced up to that point and my first proper introduction to the power of the intellect over knuckle-dragging brutality.

Five or six minutes later, on helping Thomas back up to his feet – bruised and a bit battered – we realised we’d learnt another important rule of satire which is that the powerful never cotton on straight away to the rug being pulled from under their feet, i.e. it takes a while for your victory to sink in to their small minds, but notwithstanding this fact, victory is yours if you have truth on your side.

Well, it’s the same with the Powerline satirists. Thirty five tweets barely retweeted by a handful of followers may not seem much in comparison to tobaccotactics’ hundreds of tweets endlessly retweeted by hundreds of followers, but because truth was, and is, on the Powerline-spoofers’ side, I’ll let you decide who the ultimate winners are. 

6 responses to “Tweeting truth to power

  1. How can you call Tobacco Control powerless with all the taxpayer funding they receive and the ear of government they have.

    The Tobacco Control Industry are the bullies here, fighting against a legal business selling a legal product and using our looted money to do it.

  2. It’s not about power, it’s about influence. And the tobacco control/public health lobby has a lot of influence. Come to that, it also has a lot of money – usually paid for by taxes.

    From the viewpoint of the vaper and smoker on the street, ASH (in various guises), CRUK, and other tobacco control groups have one hell of a lot of influence over what happens to us.

    I’m reminded of the classic class sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. From your point of view, vapers/smokers are Ronnie Corbett. However, times have changed and Corbett is fighting back.

  3. I wonder if it’s deliberate design decision that you have to select the area under the comment header in order to see the text (at least in Chrome)? If not then get it sorted for goodness sake – the same is true of the notification check boxes below the comment editor.

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