#janmoir and Spontaneous Campaigning through social networks

Dail Mail offices last Friday (artist's impression)

Dail Mail offices last Friday (artist's impression)

For those of us that revel in mass self-righteous indignation, the UK Twitterverse was a beautiful place last Friday. I like may others, picked up

the flaming torches and stormed the Daily Mail‘s windmill demanding blood. Jan Moir‘s notorious opinion piece regarding the death of Stephan Gately was the perfect marriage on innuendo and prejudice. Exactly the sort of ignorant and loathsome bilge that the Daily Mail trot out on a regular basis. Only this time the level of ignorance mixed with the breathtaking dismissal of the evidence and circumstances behind Gately’s death invoked a furious reaction among on Twitter and Facebook. By the end of the day, Moirgate had become like Max Gogarty, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross in that the story became about the backlash rather than the story itself.

The swiftness of the campaign against Moir’s piece was impressive. A Facebook page was published with all the contact details of the advertisers. And it seems to have worked. This of course is the best way to strike at a commercial newspaper, is in their wallet rather than the toothless Press Complaints Commission.

But this was more than the natural outrage at some scandalous hate filled accusations abut the lifestyle of a dead man. It was an opportunity for anyone who has a beef with the Daily Mail to strike a blow against them. The Mail has been the champion of the reactionary and intolerant. It trades off the spread of fear, panic and prejudice and the victims of their bile plus those who sympathise with them have been waiting for them to slip up so they can strike back. Make know mistake, this this Liberal Britain’s Ross and Brand! At least the protion of Liberal Britain that’s on Twitter at any rate

The reaction is yet another example of how social networks can organise people in a short period of time. It also demonstrates how expressions of public reaction can be amplified in in an arena beyond the control of the news media. Once again the masses (albeit a pretty small mass) are controlling the agenda and those who make a living out of doing precisely that need to get a handle on social networks quick or find themselves in trouble with their bosses. It’s worth pointing out that the UK Twitterverse only represents a small proportion of the British population. So while they may be loud, it is hardly enough to bring down the Daily Mail.

However, as social networks continue to expand, so will increase the likelihood that similar backlashes and Spontaneous Campaigning will grow in size and influence. With specific regards to the tabloid press, they would do well to note what took place on Friday and take action. After careful consideration and tea drinking, I’ve narrowed them to three:

Engage in Social Networks – Engage, converse, build your own constituency on Twitter and Facebook etc. Hook up with people who will instinctively promote your output and defend it against criticism from your enemies. Believe it or not, their are people out there who will agree with Jan Moir, or at the very least defend her right to make unfounded accusations and propagate dangerous stereotypes.

Attack Social Media –  Try to stop Social Media from growing by using your influence in the non-line world with Twitter Causes Cancer stories and Facebook Linked to Muslim Extremists. That sort of thing.

Erect a pay wall – Lets face it. How many of us would have read Moir’s piece if it had been published on paper only? By making it free and online, it becomes accessible to the sort of people who don’t usually read and consequently are not used to the Mail’s variety of poisonous bile. Nor would it be available to the many people who are waiting for the opportunity to stick the boot in when the Mail publishes an obviously inaccurate borderline deranged interpretation of a tragic event. A pay wall would go some way of stopping the wrong people from reading their shit.

I’m not going to speculate which of any of the above roads the Mail or any other news organisation will walk down (although I reckon they’ll have a quick stroll down the second because it’s cheap and less work). However, for the second time in a week, we are seeing the effectiveness of a social media to build a consensus, turn it into a movement within hours and produce tangible results from their activity. The implications are potentially huge and far reaching for democracy.

What’s more, on both occasions, these movements loosely stem from a liberal/leftish sentiment. Could it be that the myriad and disparate institutions of the left have found a platform that allows them to quickly form a consensus and campaigning tool with which to fight political battles? Now that would truly be something.

Guardian gags, Trafigura and Carter-Ruck: Twitter sets its own agenda

Guardian: Gagged

Guardian: Gagged

For those of you who do not know, the Guardian newspaper had been gagged by the solicitors, Carter-Ruck on behalf of their client,the oil trading company, Trafigura from reporting on an upcoming Parliamentary question. Thus far, no one can recall a time when the press have been successfully prevented by a lawyer from reporting on an open parliamentary session. The question was in connection with this report about the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast by Trafigura.

The Guardian published a story stating that it had been gagged last night (12th October 2009) and I first became aware of this on Twitter a few hours later thanks to this retweet from @secretlondon. Within a few hours of what had happened but I was able to find out the reason behind the gagging order and learn about the illegal dumping of toxic waste. Not bad for 140 characters.

This morning, I logged on to Twitter to find that both “Trafigura” and “Carter-Ruck” were top trenders. However, a similar keyword search on Google News uncovered hardly any activity from mainstream news sources regarding the gagging order. The BBC have published this brief piece on the subject over 24 hours after the story originally broke and several hours after the Twitterverse grabbed hold of it but generally speaking the press are not covering the story.

One could argue that the mainstream media do not regard the story as being of sufficient importance or in the public interest but that seems very unlikely. Preventing the press from reporting on Parliament strikes at the very core of free speech. Also it would surely make for an excellent companion piece to all the MPs expense shenanigans currently doing to rounds on the nation’s newsdesks.

However, I’m not going to speculate as to why this story did not off the ground. That fact is that were it not for Twitter, there is a very good chance that the reach of this story would have been restricted those few people who read the story on the Guardian and the readership of a handful of bloggers who make it their business to find out about these things. As it stands now, people in the US will be waking up from their slumbers, opening up Twitter and asking themselves, “What or who is Trafigura?”.  Thanks to Twitter, an important but under reported news story has gone global.

Of course, one should not over-egg Twitter’s reach. The likelihood is that only a fraction of international Twitter users will pay any attention to the story or see any relevance to themselves. However, I believe we are probably seeing one of the first instances of a social network setting its own agenda rather than reacting to one set by the news media.

If we think back to #mumbai, #iranelection and #g20 and the impact Twitter had in the reporting and coverage of those events, we can understand that Twitter has a role as a news gatherer and instrument for campaigning (#welovethenhs). However, Guardian/Trafigura/Carter-Ruck differs because it is a story that has had new life breathed into it by Twitter. The Mumbai attacks and political demonstrations in Tehran and London were extensively reported, this gagging order is not. In fact, Twitter has gone further by aggregating links to blogs and wikis that help provide the narrative behind the story.

As I’m typing this, news is breaking  that the order has been lifted and the parliamentary questions can now be covered. Justice is

While the Trafigura story goes largely unreported in the media, it continues to trend on Twitter

While the Trafigura story goes largely unreported in the media, it continues to trend on Twitter

served. To what extent Twitter played its part in this in uncertain. However, this episode demonstrates a shifting paradigm of mass media news coverage. In the past, important news stories weren’t so much suppressed as ignored. If a story is regarded as too sensitive or not in a newspaper’s wider commercial interests  then it would not have been covered. Social Networks are changing that.  For sure in a few hours time Twitter will be flooded with Googlewave invites but for a few short hours the Twitterverse told the world about something really important that happened which they probably would never have known about. And that is surely a good thing.

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The Web has changed. Social Media has made our Internet lives more personal. We’ve grown up. We can finally be ourselves. That’s why I’ve chosen to emerge from behind an Internet alias and be myself.

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