For the lulz: Have we traded protest for performance?

As the check-shirted protester leapt up from his seat towards Rupert Murdoch, it seemed like a moment made for a grand, sweeping gesture. The billionaire media mogul had been brought before a British parliamentary committee to face questions about the illegal activities inside his newspapers — activities that led to the closure of a newspaper and multiple resignations — but both Rupert and his son, James, had avoided most of the uncomfortable questions by claiming they simply did not know what was happening inside the company they are supposed to run.

Millions had tuned in around the world on television or online to watch proceedings, but their despair and angst had become palpable as people discussed what was happening. In homes, in offices, and across the web, people watched the Murdochs squirm and try to work their way out of a tight spot. Maybe this lone individual could be the voice of the people, even if parliament was struggling to pin down their enemies.

In the end, the protest was a soggy stunt — a cream pie, thrown at Murdoch senior, who composed himself quickly and re-emerged jacketless a few minutes later, looking scrawnier than ever. The great protest, it turned out, was merely a piece of slapstick.

It was the second stunt protest against Murdoch’s media empire inside a day. Overnight, Lulzsec — the protest group formed by hackers who seem rather unclear on what they’re protesting about — staged its own piece of theater, apparently gaining access to the networks of News Corporation’s (w nws) British newspapers. They hijacked the homepage of its biggest-selling title, The Sun, and also started distributing emails and user accounts that appeared to belong to newspaper staff.

These joke protests have happened many times before. But given the breadth of the allegations against the News of the World — invading the privacy of murdered children, terror victims and soldiers, bribing police, planting staff and holding sway over senior political figures — a joke seems somehow inappropriate. The curtain has been pulled back on corruption, and all we can really manage is to say we’re “in it for the lulz.”

The weapons we have today seem paltry. Yes, we can organize our outrage on Twitter and Facebook, and we can share information with each other. But while the web helps us vent our spleen, it rarely helps us cleanse our system of corruption. Our anger doesn’t take down governments; it takes down a website. We’re left disenfranchised and dismayed, with nothing but parlor tricks and games to satisfy our need for justice. As my colleague Stacey said on seeing the events unfold, “When politics become a joke, so do the protests”.

We’ve substituted transparency for performance. And if you don’t believe me, then look at Jonnie Marbles, the man who claims to have been the one who pied Rupert Murdoch. Just seconds before launching into his big moment, he paused and told the world of his plans on Twitter. “It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before,” he wrote, echoing the famous, grandiose language of Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

In that book, set in the French Revolution, one character makes up for his failings by going to the guillotine: sacrificing himself so the system may be overturned. In our world, the great sacrifice was formed out of a shaving foam and a paper plate. Perhaps this is all we’re left with… and perhaps it’s what we deserve.