Circular Firing Squads

The Internet can be a cruel place sometimes. If you’re not careful, it can be all the more brutal. The online morality police are watching your every move. And even when you are careful, it can still be pretty nasty. You enter at your own peril.

Take the case of #BoycottNovara, the Twitter campaign to take down a rising alternative media platform.

Allegedly, the editors are ‘soft’ on sexual violence. Apparently, the editorial team is composed entirely of men who don’t care about rape. The fact that the team is a mix of men, women and transgender persons is lost. The fact that Novara has served as a platform for queer and British Asian activists to raise the level of debate about sexuality and race is also lost.

How did this happen? It began after one of Novara Media’s most prominent editors Aaron Bastani appeared on George Galloway’s TalkRadio show to discuss the UK election. Bastani has appeared on Galloway’s show before and there was no outrage. Many politicians and commentators have done so over the years, but this time was different.


A storm broke out on social media, with a rush to form Twitter mobs. The new line was that Bastani doesn’t care about sexual violence because he appeared on Galloway’s show. It was only a few years ago that Galloway described the sexual assault allegations against Julian Assange as “bad sexual etiquette”. This comment provoked a storm of outrage on the left.

Soon campaigns emerged to ban George Galloway from university campuses for his comment. No-platforming, a tactic traditionally reserved for fascists, was now being invoked against Galloway for his gross remarks on the Assange case. As a result, Bastani’s appearance on the radio show damned him from the outset. He was fraternising with someone who is meant to be no-platformed.

It was a case of guilt by association, and the cordon sanitaire around Galloway was to be expanded to include Aaron Bastani and eventually the Novara Media editorial team. New allegations were copied and pasted from the past, the alternative media outlet was soon being accused of giving a platform to an alleged perpetrator of sexual violence. Allegedly, Novara editors are friends with the Bloomsbury 10, who wrote a letter questioning the accountability process in the case. This was several years ago.

It wasn’t long before Novara Media was being condemned for associating with rape apologists and abusers. A hashtag was launched calling on Twitter users to boycott Novara and support survivors. I was soon reading status updates from fellow leftists claiming Bastani was a “careerist wanker” and a “misogynist twat”. Novara Media was, apparently, insufficiently democratic and its editorial team insufficiently pure.

A wave of abuse hit the inboxes of Novara editors and contributors, as well as their partners and families. Editors were doubly condemned for blocking people on social media in response to the campaign of abuse and vilification. People were expected to take sides, it’s either Novara and the rapists or the survivors of such assaults. All of this was done for the cause of harm reduction, apparently.

Yet there was very little information about the case. If you had the right channels, you could find out what was happening fairly quickly; but there was no serious attempt to provide an account of the events. Everyone on the left was expected to take a stand on the basis of very little information. This is so often the case in these collective outbursts of electronic rage.

Finally after a week, Novara Media issued an official statement apologising for the appearance on Galloway’s radio show. Novara clarified it is putting together a code of conduct and a procedure for complaints. It also clarified it had been given video material, which featured the alleged abuser in an anonymised form. Bastani apologised for appearing on Galloway’s show. He claimed he was unaware of the man’s comments about rape.

None of this will be good enough for some people. It wasn’t surprising to see Novara Media targeted in this way, but it was depressingly familiar. The media organisation would not have been targeted were it not increasingly successful in building a platform for left-wing politics. Not only does a section of progressive thought enjoy moral outrage, it enjoys guilt and it is suspicious of other leftists who might be better at getting things done.

It’s ironic that the people calling for greater sensitivity and harm reduction are the same people who think sending abusive emails is a virtuous political act. This is why Mark Fisher’s suicide drew joy and celebration on Twitter. For such people, the apology issued by Novara Media was just an admission of guilt in the eyes of this crowd. The purge must go on. It must go on until only the most pure and innocent remain. Everyone has to prove they are on the right side by attacking the guilty.

The problem is that the search for moral purity will never end because such a thing is impossible. So we’ll just see circular firing squads formed periodically to cleanse the left of its sinners, and each time the shooting is more ferocious and indiscriminate. It’s almost as if decades of failure and defeat has diverted the left’s energies into moral crises. And maybe that’s the point, whether the people involved realise it or not.

Photograph courtesy of Death Process. Published under a Creative Commons license.