How #SpartacusReport And The Campaign Went Viral
Something extraordinary happened last week in the volatile micro-blogging world of Twitter: a medium normally obsessed by celebrities, football and sex turned its collective attention instead to disability. A handmade campaign against welfare cuts launched by a tiny band of disabled activists took the social media world by storm.
Over the course of Monday 9 January, hundreds of thousands of people tweeted around #spartacusreport. In the jargon, the hashtag “top trended” for most of the day. In other words, of all the topics of the day, a serious report (entitled Responsible Reform) outlining in careful detail the government’s alleged multiple lies and evasions over its proposed disability living allowance (DLA) reform had proved, incredibly, hugely popular.
Prior to last Monday, virtually all the mainstream media had ignored the report, and the campaign itself. That morning, the buzz, diligently begun by a network of hundreds of disabled people, started to grow. Then powerful tweeters spotted it: the actor and writer Stephen Fry (who has more than 3 million Twitter followers) tweeted his support, unasked. The flood of public interest he sparked by that tweet temporarily crashed one of the websites on which the report was hosted.
Lord [John] Prescott and Tony Blair’s former press secretary Alastair Campbell added their Twitter backing. More celebrities started to tweet about it: musician Billy Bragg, crime writer Val McDermid, Coronation Street actor Julie Hesmondhalgh. Thousands of Twitter users followed suit, keeping Spartacus trending.
On Monday afternoon, the Department for Work and Pensions press office took to Twitter in an attempt to justify the government’s reforms, using the Spartacus hashtag. This was significant: the government was having to enter the debate on the disability activists’ own terms. The political journalist Paul Waugh later tweeted that #spartacusreport offered “proof that social media can transform a campaign. Publicity worth millions I suspect”.
By Wednesday night, the stunning success of the campaign became even clearer when the House of Lords delivered a hat-trick of defeats to the government’s welfare reform bill, over clauses affecting disabled children, cancer patients, and the time limiting of employment support allowance.
The combination of political upset and the ubiquity of #spartacusreport seemed to crystallise a new mood of public unease over welfare reform, artfully characterised by the Labour party as a feeling that government had “crossed the basic line of British decency”.
By this time, the mainstream media had begun to sit up and take a closer interest in disability benefits. The following evening, after a day in which the media had picked over the government’s humiliation in the Lords, the BBC’s Newsnight programme invited the work and pensions minister Chris Grayling on air to debate the defeated proposals (which the coalition government intends to restore when the bill returns to the Commons). To oppose him, sat one of the principal architects of the Spartacus campaign, Sue Marsh.
The success of the campaign did not entirely surprise political blogger and commentator Sunny Hundal, editor of the Liberal Conspiracy blog. “They had a compelling story to tell. It made everyone think, ‘This is a group of people that will really be hit by the cuts.’ It was a proper grassroots campaign.”
The symbolism of Marsh’s Newsnight appearance, heralding as it may have done the emergence of a new form of disability activism (Marsh calls it “from-bed activism”), empowered by social media and operating largely outside conventional media and charity channels, was powerful. This kind of public hearing for disabled people was precisely what she and fellow activist Kaliya Franklin had been planning for the past 18 months, although they never quite believed they would achieve it.
Twenty-one years ago Marsh was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a debilitating condition that now requires daily medication and anti-sickness injections. As a teenager she went to university (“against the advice of my GP”) and subsequently worked in sales for several years before quitting for health reasons: “I got ill, had surgery, and I could not keep the job. In the end my friends said, ‘You have to stop this, you are killing yourself.’”
Around three years ago she started her own ironically-titled blog, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, to monitor the proposed cuts to disability benefits. She became a prolific, highly respected blogger, guesting on the left of centre blogs Left Foot Forward and Liberal Conspiracy, as well as the Guardian’s comment is free. Her blogpost just before Christmas, reporting that she had been turned down as ineligible for DLA, went viral on Twitter.
So, why did the Spartacus campaign work so spectacularly? Marsh says: “Luck, in part. But people were desperate for [it]. We gave thousands of people something that they could easily use to express their views, and rally behind. And it gave us hope – up to then we didn’t have any hope.”
Fellow Spartacus activist Franklin says it was the internet, blogs and Twitter that enabled disabled people to get their voice heard, unmediated by traditional media. “None of this would have happened without social media. The campaign has been done by people mostly from their beds. We would not have been able to find each other had we not had access to social media.”
Franklin also hosts a successful blog – Benefit Scrounging Scum – where some of her made-for-YouTube videos have become cult viewing (her “shame on you…” message to David Cameron marked the beginning of the Spartacus campaign in October 2010). One clip records her putting the Labour leader Ed Miliband on the spot at last year’s Labour party conference, with Franklin’s eloquence about politicians’ toxic use of “benefit scrounger” rhetoric contrasting with the awkwardness of a surprised Miliband.
“I have to give Ed his due. I’m not a Labour party member but, to be fair, he rang me afterwards and gave me a full 15 minutes and had the grace to listen very carefully to what was being said,” says Franklin. Labour, she says, has been much more attentive since, though, she points out, it paved the way for many of the current welfare changes, “and has found it very difficult to find a way out of the mess it has created”.
Law graduate Franklin, 36, was not disabled as a child. She had planned to join the army before an accident, while teaching in the US after university, exacerbated existing inherited health problems. At 28, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Symptoms include joint hypermobility and arthritis, and she has serious and persistent health and mobility problems. “Since October, I do not think I have been out of my pyjamas for more than a handful of days,” she says.
The importance of DLA for Franklin is that it helps her to live independently. Despite her mobility and health difficulties, she is not eligible for social care support, having been assessed as requiring only “moderate” needs. She has been refused an NHS wheelchair, and relies heavily on a support network of friends and neighbours to help her.
One of the problems, she says, is that despite years of underfunding for adult social care, people assume the state’s support for disabled and chronically sick people in receipt of DLA is much more comprehensive than it is, and that “we all have a nice bungalow and an adapted car”.
Despite their success, the Spartacus campaigners are already counting the personal cost to their health. Some, already ill, have retired exhausted.
For herself, Franklin feels this is a price she may have to accept as the welfare reform bill debate intensifies: “It’s a position of moral conscience. We could not live with ourselves if we did not give everything. Those of us in the core group [of campaigners] have understood that we risk damaging our health by doing this. But some things in life are more important.”