Wednesday briefing: What a viral row tells us about protest politics in the digital age

<span>Screengrab from video taken with permission from the social media site X, formerly Twitter, posted by Campaign Against Antisemitism of their chief executive Gideon Falter speaking to a Metropolitan Police during a pro-Palestine march in London.</span><span>Photograph: Campaign Against Antisemitism/PA</span>
Screengrab from video taken with permission from the social media site X, formerly Twitter, posted by Campaign Against Antisemitism of their chief executive Gideon Falter speaking to a Metropolitan Police during a pro-Palestine march in London.Photograph: Campaign Against Antisemitism/PA

Good morning. When the story first emerged last Friday, it looked like an uncomplicated example of antisemitism: a man wearing a kippah going for his usual walk in London after synagogue and happening to bump into a pro-Palestine march, being told by a police officer that because he was “quite openly Jewish”, he could not cross the road.

Gideon Falter, the man in the video, was threatened with arrest. He called for the resignation of the Met chief, Mark Rowley – and drew support from former home secretary Suella Braverman, among others. The incident seemed to prove that whenever the marches are happening, Jewish people who feel intimidated can’t even trust the police to be on their side. A video of the incident made front page news – and it has been viewed more than 3m times.

But since then, more information has emerged – information that does not erase the reality of what the officer said, but does raise complicated questions about other parts of the story, and how it came about. Today’s newsletter, with Alan Finlayson, UEA professor of political theory and expert in protest and political digital culture, is about how the story has evolved – and what it tells us about how protest and counterprotest operate in a digital era. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Defence | Britain will boost its military spending to 2.5% of national output by the end of the decade, Rishi Sunak said yesterday, as he pledged to put the UK’s arms industry on a “war footing” in response to global threats. The plan, which will cost an additional £75bn over six years, could mean spending cuts in other areas.

  2. Immigration and asylum | Humanitarian groups have called for new safe routes to Britain after five people died trying to cross the Channel within hours of ministers passing the controversial Rwanda bill. A child and four adults drowned on Tuesday after leaving France on a vessel said to be carrying 110 people.

  3. Ukraine | The US Senate voted resoundingly on Tuesday to approve $95bn in aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, as a bipartisan super-majority united to send the long-stalled package to Joe Biden’s desk for signature. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer called it “one of the greatest achievements the Senate has faced in years”.

  4. Middle East | The UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, says he is “horrified” by reports of mass graves containing hundreds of bodies at two of Gaza’s largest hospitals. Palestinian civil defence teams began exhuming bodies from a mass grave outside the Nasser hospital complex in Khan Younis last week after Israeli troops withdrew.

  5. Wales | Hundreds of Welsh roads where a 20mph speed limit was introduced under a controversial law could be returned to 30mph, as the Labour-led government admitted mistakes had been made over the policy. Transport secretary Ken Skates said the 20mph limit would remain in built-up areas and outside schools but change in rural and semi-urban areas.

In depth: ‘You’re not trying to convert – you’re trying to intensify the views of those already with you’

When the video was first published, the police put out a statement apologising, but also saying that some counter-protesters coming to the marches were deliberately provocative. Then it retracted that claim of provocation, and issued another apology. The coverage largely focused on the Met’s dithering, and Falter’s warning that the force was “making no-go areas for Jews” by its approach to policing the marches.

As the picture has become more complicated, nobody has disputed that the officer’s suggestion that being “openly Jewish” was a problem was offensive. But a fuller account has emerged since, prompting reasonable questions over whether Falter told the whole story.


How the story developed

Gideon Falter is chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), the organisation that published the initial video – and while he said that he had merely “met up with some people to just go on a walkabout” and was “not there to counter-protest”, some have been sceptical about that account. Falter has made other statements that the protests are creating no-go areas, and had a previous run-in with police over a CAA van displaying images of children kidnapped by Hamas. That recent history might suggest that it is unlikely he came across the march by mistake.

A fuller video of the encounter with the police officer, published by Sky News on Monday, gives more context. The initial clip was 55 seconds; the new material runs to 13 minutes. In this analysis, Harriet Sherwood notes that it appears to show one of a group with Falter filming the encounter, with others scanning the crowd. And while Falter claims to simply want to cross the road, he declines when offered an alternative route that would avoid a potential flashpoint. The officer called his purported intention to be merely passing through “disingenuous”.

All of that helps explain why, after the Met initially stayed on the defensive, Commissioner Mark Rowley gave the Guardian’s Vikram Dodd an interview on Monday. Rowley praised the sergeant involved in the incident as “professional”, and gave a more general warning about officers at other protests being “set up”.

If Falter was there deliberately seeking to highlight his alarm about the marches, “that is not necessarily an illegitimate political move,” said Alan Finlayson. “There is a part of our politics which is about looking for ways to dramatise meaningful concerns. So it might feel like it embodies a deeper truth about the situation they are confronting.” But others can also reasonably ask if the story being told gives them enough information to make their own judgement.

There have previously been allegations that the CAA has a more directly political approach than its stated mission would suggest. Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP who was an honorary patron of the organisation when it took on Jeremy Corbyn over claims of antisemitism in the party, said after Keir Starmer became leader that it had become “more concerned with undermining Labour than rooting out antisemitism”.

In 2015, a report published (PDF) by the the all-party parliamentary group on antisemitism said that the CAA had on some occasions “conflated concerns about activity legitimately protesting Israel’s actions with antisemitism” and did not always act in accordance with the leading advisory body the Community Security Trust’s approach of “seeking to avoid undue panic and alarm”.

On Sunday, the CST said that the officer involved in the incident had “tried to do the right thing but ended up making things worse”. It reiterated its own concerns about the protests, but said that in this case, “the context and detail [had been] lost in the heat of controversy”.


How tactics like these have evolved

In one sense, Finlayson said, “this kind of political activity is nothing new. But whereas things like that might once have existed to get in a newspaper, now they exist to be filmed. The key thing is to understand that there is no point distinguishing between online and offline activity – what is useful is producing content that will circulate online. And that’s certainly increased.”

Finlayson distinguished various types of protest: “A demonstration can be an embodiment of your argument – if a climate protest stops traffic, that isn’t going to end the use of cars, but it dramatises the problem. That’s a bit different from throwing soup at a painting, which just seems like a way to get publicity. And then there’s engendering a situation which you can say is evidence for your argument, and that’s different again. Equally, you might say that if you can get a racist person to say something racist, you’ve genuinely proven a point. The line won’t always be clear.”

From there, he said, “it’s only a short step to going to something with a camera and hoping for trouble. You see it all the time.” He pointed to far-right protests over library readings by drag queens in the last few years, which typically draw 20 or 30 people but are put out as evidence of a larger public mood. Similarly, adherents to the “sovereign citizen” conspiracy theory, which rejects any legal or governmental authority over the individual, seek out disputes with the police by refusing to display number plates or attempting to arrest them.

Rowley mentioned his frustration at an incident in which a Met officer unknowingly had a “Boycott Israel Apartheid” sticker put on him at a Gaza rally, prompting one critic to say that he “should have been aware of the sticker being placed on him and acted immediately”. There’s an important distinction to be drawn between these kind of misleading accounts of real events, and fake videos that frequently circulate claiming that old footage is part of a recent flashpoint. But the media is much better at taking a critical view of the second category than the first.

“The media doesn’t necessarily understand that the material is not produced with them in mind, and it doesn’t adapt to that reality very well,” Finlayson said. “Disinformation travels fast, and the response is slower. This stuff is produced with TikTok or Telegram in mind – unlike a news story, it doesn’t have to be converted to work there. And in this case, I wouldn’t say it was confirmation bias – but I would say that it fitted into one of the stories that is currently being told, so it is intelligible to the audience.”


The rise of the ‘ideological entrepreneur’

In an essay published last year (PDF), Finlayson explained the idea of “ideological entrepreneurs”: those who “do not need – and make a virtue of lacking – the imprimatur of the academic, journalistic or political professions … [who] are not constrained by institutional or ethical rules or interests. Instead, they are governed by the economic and celebrity logics that drive social media.”

While that is a more obvious phenomenon on the right at the moment – Tommy Robinson, Laurence Fox and Katie Hopkins are just a few examples – “that’s largely because they’re more effective at it than the left and liberals, although they’re catching up”, Finlayson said. “They are promoting a political position, and it’s making them an income, but it’s not just a grift – it’s a way of promoting yourself and therefore your movement and cause.”

Crucially, this kind of approach has very little to say to those who disagree – and that suggests that even when the story changes, opinions may not. “The way this kind of communication works is to cultivate an existing audience,” Finlayson said. “You’re not trying to produce material that makes an argument to the unconverted – you’re trying to intensify the views of those who are already with you.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Imprisonment for public protection sentences condemned those who received them to a potentially unlimited period in jail for relatively minor offences. They were abolished in 2012 – but there are still 2,852 people serving them, and 90 have taken their own lives. One of those was Tommy Nicol (above). Simon Hattenstone’s piece about Nicol, whose crime was to steal a car, is a devastating indictment of a grotesque injustice. Archie

  • E Alex Jung’s New York magazine interview with the ultimate “Debate Me Bro” Mehdi Hasan provides an insight into how the Guardian columnist approached his combative MSNBC interviews – and how his show was cancelled. Nimo

  • Sandra Laville spoke with Trudi Warner, a 69-year-old climate activist, about her battle with against the UK government which tried prosecute her for contempt of court for her lone, silent protest. Nimo

  • I hate fish, and the thought of Tim Dowling’s duty in recreating six classic beef dishes with seafood (health reasons, apparently) makes me want to retch. Luckily, the piece is entertaining enough to make up for it. Trout lasagne! Archie

  • An obscure 1986 federal law has become a focal part of abortion care in Idaho, a state with some of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the US. Now even this small provision is under attack. Carter Sherman reports on the court case and the potential repercussions for care providers. Nimo


Premier League | Arsenal hammered a dire Chelsea side 5-0, with a goal from Leandro Trossard and two each for Ben White and Kai Havertz (above), to go three points clear at the top of the table. The result is Arsenal’s biggest ever victory over their London rivals.

Premier League | Liverpool are interested in appointing Feyenoord’s Arne Slot as their new manager this summer. Liverpool could face competition from Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Milan for Slot, who has enjoyed consistent success with Feyenoord since ­replacing Dick Advocaat in 2021.

Tennis | Novak Djokovic has suggested that he may not replace former coach Goran Ivanisevic, and instead choose to navigate this late stage of his career himself. Djokovic split with Ivanisevic late last month and has been undergoing a trial period with Serbia’s former Davis Cup captain Nenad Zimonjić.

The front pages

“PM to raise defence spending and put arms industry on ‘war footing’” says the Guardian’s splash headline this morning. And by jingo doesn’t the Daily Express love it – “About time too! Civil service job cuts to pay for defence boost” – as well as the Daily Mail: “Biggest boost for defence in a generation”. “Tories unveil UK’s biggest hike to military spending for a generation” says the i, the Daily Telegraph has “War footing as PM ramps up defence spending” while the Times plays it very straight: “UK to spend more on defence”. “Lenders are in the dark over private equity risk, Bank of England warns” – that’s the Financial Times. “I saw him” – it’s day two in the Daily Mirror’s investigation of Jill Dando’s murder and the possible involvement of a Serbian assassin. “Let this be last channel tragedy” – five people died, the Metro reports, when a dinghy foundered off the French coast, a few hours after the Rwanda bill was passed.

Today in Focus

Could a row over a council house bring down Angela Rayner?

Keir Starmer’s deputy is facing questions over the sale of her former home. But do voters care? Gaby Hinsliff reports

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

The local legend in Kafa, Ethiopia’s coffee heartland, is that coffee was discovered there, and exported from Ethiopia’s monasteries to the Islamic world and eventually to Europe. Putting aside how accurate this story is, it highlights how much of a central pillar coffee is to life in Ethiopia. In Kafa, brewing coffee has become embedded in the rhythm of the day.

One local resident, Hagre Bekele, starts by roasting the raw green beans over an open fire., before grinding and brewing them in a clay pot. The whole process takes about an hour, so Bekele shares brewing duties with her neighbours so they can all get their caffeine fix throughout the day. It is a system they have had in place for decades and that is mirrored in millions of homes across the country.

Drinking coffee has become ingrained in the social fabric of Ethiopia: it is where people come together, discuss news, plans for the working day and share gossip: “It is impossible for us to live without coffee,” says Hagre. “It is as important as food for us. When we drink it, we become strong.”

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Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.