Friday, 16 October 2009

Twitter Power Vs Media Power

It's been a good week online for progressive people. First we have the humiliating blogger/twitter-led take down of oil trading firm Trafigura and libel specialists Carter-Ruck. And today the Daily Mail online got turned over by Twitter for this scurrilous piece of homophobic garbage.

There's no real need to go into Jan Moir's disgusting character assassination of the late Stephen Gately (comprehensive fisks
here, here and here). But the reaction it provoked on Twitter has been even greater than the Trafigura/Carter-Ruck debacle. Why?

Stephen Gately was a well-liked celebrity no one had a bad word to say about. Moir's gleeful attack on his reputation when the man hasn't even been dead for a week was not only distasteful, but also a catastrophic misreading of the public mood.
The Mail might have got off had it been one of its usual targets like Katie Price, Pete Doherty or Amy Winehouse, but definitely not here.

Then there is the pronounced left-liberal bias among British tweeters, not in the least bit harmed by several popular Labour-supporting comedians commanding thousands upon thousands of followers. Such blatant homophobia coming from a hated and hateful right wing rag is never going to sit easy with this group.

Finally, unlike political or protest activity, the cost of making one's opinion felt or registering disgust is no more than the time it takes to type out 140 characters or less. The low bar of entry encourages engagement.

In both cases, it's as if Trafigura and Moir found an extremely sensitive spot in the liberal-left body politic and aggravated it with a venom-tipped pointy stick. Trafigura excited the anxiety over the erosion of democracy and freedom of speech by monied interests. Moir provoked the passive revulsion felt against the unimpeded flow of bigotry coming from
The Mail and its ilk.

But to become a trending topic that can force itself onto the mainstream news agenda a twitter storm appears to gather momentum by progressing through three stages.

Stage One - A number of "normal" users (usually bloggers and/or politicos with medium-sized followings) start tweeting about an issue, which in turn provokes reactions and retweets from others. Usually this gets an issue trending at the lower end of Twitter's trending topics.

Stage Two - The issue is picked up by mid-rank (in Twitter terms) comedians and celebrities, such as
Charlie Brooker, David Schneider and Graham Linehan, who retweet and spread it about a bit.

Stage Three -
Stephen Fry takes notice, which is brought to the notice of his 840,000+ followers. At that point it goes stratospheric.

To give an example of what a Fry retweet can do, by plugging the Enemies of Reason's post today Anton Vowl's traffic went up from an average of roughly 1,500 page views/day to
almost 34,000 (and that was four hours ago!). When this is coupled with calls to (internet-based) actions it can be quite potent.

And so it proved in
The Mail's case. The whirlwind of anti-Moir tweets fuelled hundreds of comments left beneath the article in question, most of them extremely critical. Later in the afternoon the website changed Moir's title from 'Why there was nothing natural about Stephen Gately's death' to the softer-sounding 'A strange, lonely and troubling death . . .' As if no one would have noticed. Next, following angry emails and tweets to Marks & Spencer their adverts were removed from the article. And the (toothless) Press Complaints Commission has been deluged with complaints. It's one of those nice twists of history that the chair of the PCC's editors' code of practice committee is none other than The Mail's editor, Paul Dacre.

Since then it's taken a slightly ugly turn. Rumours abound of Moir's address being bandied about on Twitter. It's one thing to organise a flash mob of Carter-Ruck's offices, it's quite another to implicitly threaten someone - despite their scummy beliefs.

Perhaps this will be a lesson learned by Moir and
The Mail. It was once said the media exercises power without responsibility. But social media and the rapid responses it enables are changing the rules of the game. Twitter is only one way social media is helping articulate and concentrate the diffuse anger and frustrations that exist out there. It brings right wing journalists and newspaper editors face to face with the disgust and opposition they stir up. And it's possible next time they over step the mark the mob won't just be confined to cyberspace. It might turn up on their doorsteps.


The Bluntness Daily said...

Twitter has empowered the public with a means to mobilized democracy at a speed that has not been seen before.

Advocates of Social Media claim the individual has become empowered by the ability to contribute to democracy, but the reality is the individual is powerless - only the mob can rule.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is a left liberal view, I think it is the view of most people who guess what, are not the reactionary mass of idiots some would have us believe.

In Ireland, a place where the likes of Jim Denham would have us believe is a hotbed of knuckle dragging homophobic backward simpletons, Gatley is seen as a role model!!

This is because he was seen as nice, down to earth guy and not some self obsessed open the car door for me celebrity.

northernheckler said...

Two things - Bluntness Daily - no you're wrong - it only works when the mob all agree - Twitter enables individuals to spread their own messages - but they're only picked up if anyone cares about it. Some of my messages have been RT'd several times and reached many thousands of readers - most only get read by my followers (200) (at most)

On the article itself - I like the article - and the process is broadly accurate - however there were plenty Tories joining in with this yesterday - it wasn't necessarily a left wing thing

The Bluntness Daily said...

Re Northenheckler - my comment on here is a bit truncated - i go into more detail on my blog posting which addresses your perfectly valid point. Basically, I'm just concerned about the twitter community becoming overly-reactionary, I'm glad trafugra and jan moir got twitterbashed - but lets wait and see what happens next time somebody in the public eye is suspected of a rape/murder/porn scandal. Plenty of people will "care" about the issue and tweet, doesn't mean they will have thought rationally about what they have to say.

I really hope Twitter continues to call it right tho. Wisdom of crowds and all that.

Phil BC said...

I know this wasn't generally speaking a left wing thing. But it was liberal-left types that got it off the ground. It got to such a point that anyone with a decent bone in their body felt moved to comment. As it was with #welovethenhs, as it was with Nazi Nick getting his European seat. As yet something from the right hasn't rolled through Brit-focused tweeting, probably because twitter users have more common sense!

We'll see how the Royal Mail dispute plays out online.