Kill the Bill: The digital anger fills the streets

Eye-catching posts, colourful posters and online events have been mobilising people across the country since March. UK activists groups have joined forces in leading a new Instagram Revolution, in the midst of a national lockdown. 

When the clock struck midday, London Parliament Square was slowly getting crowded. Under a grey and wet sky, an unprecedented coalition was preparing for the action. Many travelled from all over the country, just to be there. Some were following the event from a screens, at home or on a train. Other angry people were taking to the streets, all around England and Wales. On the last 21st of August, they got together calling to Kill the Bill

Environmentalists from Extinction Rebellion groups were stretched around Mahatma Gandhi Statue. Almost, as if they wanted to pay homage to the master of modern civil disobedience right before the action. United for Black Lives activists were testing the microphone, when GRT (Gipsy, Roma and Travellers) advocates from Drive2Survive unrolled the banner in front of the marble stage. At one entrance of the park, a little crowd gathered to listen to speeches coming from Socialist Party’s representatives.

The voice of speakers fuelled people resentment with powerful words. “This government is trying to shut down peaceful dissent. We will not have it. We stand together and we will succeed,” said a woman from the top of the stage. The scattered and disordered crowd quickly became a neat whole, feeding on the energy and outrage surrounding them. The heavy banners rested, lying over protesters’ legs. All the demographics were there: from teenagers and families to pensioners. All united, for replying to the call of action that has been appearing on their Instagram feeds for months now. 

“It’s being quite rare that groups joined forces. But also really good,” told me a spokesperson of the Kill The Bill Official group few days before the event. “I don’t know if the government anticipated that it would bring us together in a way that we haven’t come together before.”

The cities of Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool, Exeter, Newcastle, Brighton, Stoke-on-Trent and Cambridge followed the call coming from the capital for the sixth national day of action on August 21. Copyright: Chiara Castro

This was the sixth national day of action for protesting against the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill. Locally, there have been even more. Since March, slideshows of colourful poster and eye-catching squares have been mobilising citizens across the country directly from their social media feeds. From screens to streets, a new Instagram Revolution is bringing people together in the name of civil rights. 

Bily, who was involved with the national Kill the Bill movement right from the start, said to be amazed from the willingness of local groups to join when they called actions. “The energy around the country has been amazing. We just started things off and they jumped into action: that’s really the power of the global movement. People have been so angry about it all over the country and taking part.”

A FacebookLive notification reminded even to the more distracted attendees that the crew was about to leave. Amongst cheering and Kill the Bill chants punctuated by the rhythm of drums, the march started to move. The live streaming was on. The resistance reached also those who could not make it that day. A stream of cameras and smartphones was following religiously, shining under a heavy white light.

Activists are calling to scrap some sections of the bill, arguing that they could undermine citizens’ civil rights. If becoming law, among others, it will increase police authority to crackdown on protests as well as expand stop and search powers. It will also introduce harsher fines and jail time for unauthorised protesters, Gypsy and Traveller encampment. 

On the 9th of march, the controversial 300 page-text passed its first reading whilst sparking many critics. Even some politicians and law experts warn of possible risks. A popular coalition of resistance built up soon after. Everything happened virtually, in the midst of a national lockdown. 

At the same time the Commons were approving the proposed bill, lots of activist organisations got together to discuss what the government was trying to do and how to stop it. They reacted quickly. On the same day a joint statement was written, getting then many signatures. A letter from Liberty signed by leading charities and campaigners followed suit. Activists then called a protest for the next day. 

After the bill also passed the second reading on the 16th of March, the movement got momentum across the country. Many organisations, among which BLM groups, Extinction Rebellion and Sister Uncut, joined forces mobilising thousands into the streets. The foundations of the movement lied. 

“A lot of activist groups were aware of it from the beginning. Then, it was just a matter of trying to get the public awareness from that point on,” said Bily (not real name). The parts of the bill related to protesting took off quickly in the media, often shadowing other possible implications. “It was always a matter of trying to understand what the bill was actually saying. It took a lot of people reading over and trying to get the information out there.”

From screens to streets, a new Instagram Revolution is bringing people together in the name of civil rights

Contrary to past movements, KTB activists did not spread their message through short tweets and long threads. They opted for informational squares, posters and pictures instead. The Kill The Bill Official Instagram account opened the dance. The page was created for the first national day of action, on the 20th of March. Many local groups echoed the move. Today, there are over 50 active accounts directly related to the main Kill the Bill campaign. The majority of those use the same profile picture for being more recognisable. On a yellow background, a stylised face with a black gag on the mouth has become the national image of the fight. 

As Dr. Paolo Gerbaudo wrote in his book Tweets and the Streets, social media do not automatically mobilise masses. To be successful, they need to build a common identity that people trust and feel like they belong. Creating a collective image has then been a vital first step for the KTB activists’ strategy. Especially, given the challenge to mobilise such a diversified public that could all be impacted by the new law. 

Hashtags like #killthebill, #wewillnotbesilenced and #policecrackdownbill went soon viral. Pictures of big homemade placards become the symbols of the movement, of the people. As Cardiff University Professor Emiliano Treré explained in his works, digital icons are important within both the external and internal communication spaces of protest movements. They indeed nurture, maintain and reinforce their collective identity overtime. 

If Twitter and Facebook were the favourite platforms feeding in the OccupyWallStreets’ and Arab Springs’ resistance, the process of mobilisation is now happening on the photo-led Instagram. It is indeed after the George Floyd’s killing that US activists and artists have been shifting the lifestyle tone of the network. Thanks to a young audience highly interested in social justice, it has become a tool to organise and educate users in the UK as well.  

So, a carousel of colourful square pictures started to fill Instagram feeds around the country. Engaging slideshows, promoting political and social issues, are designed to grab the attention of users while they distractedly scroll their finger on the screen. Eye-catching posters for the next events, infographics that explain controversial points of the bill, activist guides to safely protest: these are just some examples of the content that KTB accounts post on a daily basis. 

“Instagram is good for conveying the boring parts of the bill because we can put it in images,” said the social media manager of the Kill The Bill Official page. “It’s helped because it’s made a lot of serious subjects easier to engage with and easier for people with different reading capacities.”

Working as a graphic designer for her day job, she is using her skills to break down complex data. In this way, everyone at any attention span can digest the information. This process of democratisation of content aims to educate and inform masses, slide by slide. The easy layout of apps like Canva make them the perfect tool for performing what some have called Powerpoint activism, even without needing previous design experiences. 

In an interview with NBC News, Paolo Gerbaudo, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College in London, explained that Instagram is the perfect platform for creating a clear narrative for people to emotionally invest in. As he wrote in his article From Cyber-Autonomism to Cyber-Populism, contemporary tech activists have learned how to exploit all the potentialities that commercial social media offer.

Despite the advantages, many have also criticised this rebellion 2.0. Some believe that this aestheticisation of activism, which reduces complex issue to some advertisement style posters and catchy slogans, could lead to the devaluation of social movements at large.  

Replying to the critics, KTB Official social media manager said: “I think the audience’s and people’s perception of Instagram who aren’t on it probably holds us back from a lot of people. I think Twitter is regarded as more serious and a bit more academic. So, there’s probably people who turn their noses up at the fact that it’s like an Instagram revolution or whatever.”

Every time that there’s a big thing in the news or when the bill passes through a certain reading, it’s the Instagram which gets flooded with more followers

She explains that at the beginning Twitter blocked their account, whilst Instagram blew up straight away almost on his own. “The youth has been really active on Instagram. Every time there’s a big thing in the news or when the bill passes through a certain reading, it’s the Instagram which gets flooded with more followers,” she said. “Whereas, on Facebook there’s barely any interaction. On Twitter there’s more and I think there probably would be an audience if we were better at tweeting.”

This emotional attraction towards the cause has been a driving force since the beginning. Indeed, the KTB movement got wider attention after the heavy handed policing of a peaceful vigil in memory of Sarah Everard that happened few days after the first reading. Then, it was the first Bristol protest which finished in clashes between authorities and protesters to put the collective fight under the spotlight. This created tension between demonstrators and officers, leading to more followers for the KTB accounts across the country.

As one of the actors behind the Kill the Bill resistance in Bristol said: “This revenge policing along with the original events of the 21st sparked a ton of attention with a national ‘official’ campaign coalition gaining momentum across the country. However, it was notably not existing in Bristol.”

Social media allow interpersonal communications that can easily connect many people, even without knowing each other at all. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out, these networks alter the architecture of the world by connecting people who are not physically near. In the same time, they preserve words and pictures that would otherwise have been lost through time.

For instance, after the first Bristol protest a relatively open Facebook group emerged. Here, people could share information and articles related to the cause. Through this page and the emergence of two Instagram accounts (BristolResists and BristolAgainstTheBill), posters and square posts started to slowly circulate around. This led to the following street demonstrations. There have been 12 since the resistance movement began.  

Once people have been mobilised, the challenge is keeping them motivated and engaged with the cause. If thousands of people were filling the streets during the first protests, the number progressively decreased. Thanks to digital technologies, collective actions can indeed build quickly. Although, as sociologist Tufecki wrote, with this speed comes also weakness. Movements can experience a tactical freeze if they lack of an infrastructure able to make collective decisions. This could then turn away supporters on the long term. 

“Once the bill starts affecting people and also people are talking about it, then you get more awareness spreading as well as a bigger resistance,” said Bily from the Kill The Bill Official group. Copyright: Chiara Castro

Demonstrators also lamented the need for a much more appealing and inclusive collective image, especially during direct actions. According to Paul O’Connor, video activist since the 90s and co-founder of the video production company Undercurrents, this is indeed a vital element for popular movements. “It’s all about thinking of what sort of images will appeal to certain people. If you’re not thinking like that, you just turn people off. It’s not an easy thing trying to promote counterculture or change.” 

After experiencing the energy of the movement against the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994, he cannot see the same thing happening now. “It’s not as vibrant as it was back then,” he said. “They’re obviously not reaching out beyond their own little bubbles. It could be just youth or the Instagram world the cause.”

Despite being a powerful tools in the hands of dissidents, social media follow commercial aims that can interfere with activists’ strategies. For instance, these platforms use algorithms to customise the content whilst deciding which posts to publicise and prioritise to users. 

Copyright: Chiara Castro Credits: href=’’>Abstract vector created by vectorjuice –</a>

As the author of Twitter and Tear Gas explains: “For social movements, an algorithm can be a strong tailwind or a substantial obstacle. Algorithms can also shape social movement tactics as a movement’s content producers adapt or transform their messages to be more algorithm friendly.”

Digital rebels are well aware of this mechanism. On Instagram, activists have managed to trick its algorithmic tendency to prioritise certain type of photographs. At this scope, former global design director for Nike Sportswear Eric Hu used images of flowers and nature as a background for a slideshow about police abolition.    

Another tendency of algorithms is that they can also create echo-chambers of information. As Tufkeci reported on her book, Facebook’s own studies show that the algorithm contributes to this bias. It indeed makes the feed more inclined towards one’s existing views.

KTB pages have difficulties of breaking this bubble online. The algorithm regards the Kill the Bill campaign as a left movement. This means that people classified as right wing have probably never seen a post. Neither people generally not interested in social justice matters. 

For coping with this, it seems that the link between online and offline actions have deepened. “We definitely need to diversify the tactics we use. How we reach the community is key,” said Bily. Alongside the online mobilisation, KTB activists are carrying on different offline activities. Bus stop campaigns, leafleting and park takeovers are all ways to try spreading the message out of their circle.

“We have found that reaching out to different groups and speak to people personally is the most effective way in bringing them on board. If we can reach people where they are, most do care about it. With the coalition, we’re just hoping that we can continue educating people for as long as it takes. Until there’s enough public pressure to scrap the changes that were made.” 

Many Britons cared the last 21st of August, hundreds across the country. They went home, tired from the march. They probably had a good look at their social media feed for catching up with all the events. With the smartphone still on their hands, looking for the best pictures of the day for the perfect Instagram post.