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The Brits are restless – 3 incidents of people power


Posted by
19 October 2009
18:13
8 comments

It’s been a momentous week in which 3 incidents have shown how the UK has really woken up to the power of social media.

Trafigura

The week kicked off on Tuesday morning with London law firm Cater-Ruck attempting to silence the UK Guardian from reporting a question in parliament. The Guardian led the next day with a story that was nothing less than a red rag to a raging bull:

“The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.

Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.”

Guardian editor Alan Rusbriger is social media savvy.

The Guardian knew full well and anticipated that this paragraph is just the kind of challenge the Twitter hoards adore. Us against the rich bastard lawyers. The formula works thus:

  • Tell us there is a secret.
  • Tell us it’s significant.
  • Leave enough of a hint on where to find it.

What happened next is now media history.

Suffice to say that by lunch time the next day Carter-Ruck had given up on their quest for the continuance of the injunction, while both they and the firm which they sought to protect – Trafigura – became Twitter trending topics.

The Minton report, an internal report by the Trafigura (which itself had found its way to Wikileaks), which they also had sought to repress, was discovered, found and retweeted far and wide.

Alan Rusbridger on Trafigura

Alan Rusbridger on Trafigura

For Jeff Jarvis, always good with conjuring up a memorable one-liner, the take away was summed up in a Tweet:

@jeffjarvis: New rule in new age:The harder one tries to hide a fact, the more light others will shed on it. http://bit.ly/qXDoi

Tube incident

Two days later. Another two social media uprisings.

“A TfL (that’s Transport for London for any of you who have not had the unabated pleasure of using its services) employee is filmed swearing at and threatening an elderly passenger on the London Underground.

The film is posted online and picked up by Twitter members. It emerges that the employee in question is called Ian (and he doesn’t protect his Facebook profile, stupidly) and comes to the attention of the Mayor of London. He asks TfL to investigate and TfL apparently suspends the employee.”

Tube incident

Tube incident

The camera operator who Tweets at jmacdonald also recounted what happened on his blog.

About 30 seconds later the doors opened again and he removed his arm.

I watched as he calmly relayed his experience to the staff member (who was called Ian by the way).

Ian didn’t think it was a problem – in fact, he was furious that the guy had mentioned it at all, especially as the guy was standing close to the track.

After a while, Ian started shouting at the guy to “stand back there is a fucking train approaching“.

Savvy jmacdonald pans upward to record where & when the incident took place.

Jan Moir

On the same day Jan Moir writes a hurtful article about the death of Steven Gately in the Daily Mail, intimating that his gay lifestyle was to blame. Twitter denizens mobilise again. By today more than 22,000 have complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), more complaints than it has received in 5 years.

On Friday advertisers including Marks & Spencer demanded that their advertising be removed from the webpage on which Moir’s piece was published, although Mail Online had already taken the decision to remove banner ads.

Moir, who has won a British Press Award, made a statement defending her column late on Friday, saying it was not her intention to offend, blaming a “heavily orchestrated internet campaign” for the furore and adding that it was “mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones”.

Presumably comedian Stephen Fry – who has one of the larger Twitter followings in the UK – and who came out strongly criticising Moir is seen as one of the fire starters.

Stephen Fry on Jan Moir

Stephen Fry on Jan Moir

Paul Bradshaw, online journalism lecturer and blogger, has set out to try to understand how “orchestrated” this “campaign” has really been. And he has asked for others to help him establish that, including the online crowdsourcing investigative site – Help me investigate. One of the comments he has received to his call reads:

“I’m an admin on the fb group alongside Stella. I can confirm there was nothing orchestrated about the facebook campaign – it happened pretty much as others have outlined above. I don’t think any of us expected quite so many people to join in such a small space of time! What has been particularly amazing to me are the spin off activities that have resulted from people posting on the wall. For example, there is a petition to BA to stop handing out free copies of the Daily Mail – which arose (as far as I can tell) as a direct result of people talking on the original FB group. There are a number of other linked groups and activities – difficult to keep up with them all! This is grassroots organisation facilitated by a social networking site, nothing more sinister than that.

PS: I don’t use Twitter and neither does Stella as far as I know.”

It’s alive!

It’s all very exciting. With each of these incidents, the public’s awareness of using social media to mobilise is growing. And so is the sophistication of their use of social media tools.

Social media is far more significant far sooner than I ever anticipated. It’s mobocracy – and I like it.

Interestingly enough, two of the incidents were started by reports (or suggestions) in the press. The other one by a member of the public, who blogs, Tweets and is handy with a cam.

One tweet I saw this week said:

@dannyrogers2001: #Trafigura the perfect modern media case study. Social media influential but ‘old’ media (Guardian) drives agenda.

That is wishful thinking. It’s more of a symbiosis me thinks. ‘Old’ media sets out a stall for many agendas on a daily basis. But so does social media. And in an ever-increasing fashion.

But it’s ultimately the people who decide which agenda goes stellar.

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7 Comments

  • Posted by Alec East
    October 20, 2009 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Nice case, well put. I especially like the UK-centric relevance as it illustrates how established and ingrained the social web is over here. The popularity of social media platforms and the speed that events can ignite and burn-out are intriguing..

    The notion that the Jan Moir incident was orchestrated is hilarious – if only we could engineer such debate and excitement to order!

    But I do have to wonder just how much a storm on Twitter or Facebook really affects the status quo. Re-Tweeting a message of disgruntled opinion hardly equates to storming the Bastille. And when news travels at the speed of Twitter, who amongst us can sustain the passion or interest it takes to make change happen, when there’s a new & exciting row brewing over something else today?

    I’m not jaded, but as someone with a vested interest in society’s opinions & passions, I’m skeptical of how much bite exists behind the bark.

  • Posted by Alec East
    October 20, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Nice case, well put. I especially like the UK-centric relevance as it illustrates how established and ingrained the social web is over here. The popularity of social media platforms and the speed that events can ignite and burn-out are intriguing..

    The notion that the Jan Moir incident was orchestrated is hilarious – if only we could engineer such debate and excitement to order!

    But I do have to wonder just how much a storm on Twitter or Facebook really affects the status quo. Re-Tweeting a message of disgruntled opinion hardly equates to storming the Bastille. And when news travels at the speed of Twitter, who amongst us can sustain the passion or interest it takes to make change happen, when there’s a new & exciting row brewing over something else today?

    I’m not jaded, but as someone with a vested interest in society’s opinions & passions, I’m Just skeptical of how much bite exists behind the bark.

  • October 22, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Alec, good points well made.

    I agree that the public could flit between rows, but even then change came because in each of the incidents mentioned above.

    Trafigura – parliament is debating the UK’s libel laws and we all now know about the Monton report and some at least about its content.

    Jan Moir – my bet is the Daily Mail would be careful – at least for a while. And the PCC has made an exception to their normal policy which mandates that only the family could complain.

    Tube incident – Ian was suspended. You can bet that many Tube officials will now be a more careful.

    Real change often happens in small steps. Bastille style revolutions are often Pyrrhic victories.

    I don’t think we should underestimate the changes we are seeing.

  • Posted by Alec East
    October 26, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    OK, so my choice of metaphors could have been better but I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to say the French Revolution was a pyrrhic victory ;)

    More importantly, while I totally agree with your point about small steps, I’d add that the number of small steps required to make change happen often requires the level of sustained energy and focus that is absent from Twitter storms and thier like.

    I’m not denying that social media has the *potential* to create change, but in each of the above cases did real & valid change really come about because of the social web or did the activity on the social web merely reflect what was happening anyway? Did we confuse mob rule and knee jerk reactions for a concensus of informed opinion?

    I won’t go into huge detail as it’s all available on the web to anyone who can use Google, but I would say that anyone wondering why Jan Moir still writes in the Daily Mail despite 22,000 complaints to the PCC should read-up on the PCC’s code of practice and also on Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail and, ironically, Chair of the PCC code of practice committee.

    I would also point out that no-one knew or cared about the Trafigura / Carter-Ruck injunction on the Guardian (issued way back in mid-September) until the MP Paul Farrelly decided to raise the question of it’s legality in the house of parliament. The fact that an MP was asking a question in the mother of all parliaments about the injunction is surely evidence that change was underway with the help of the twittering classes.

    And as for Ian the Tube worker… most companies have a code of practice for staff and appropriate channels for complaints that don’t require public outcry to create swift results.

    The only thing that these cases truly demonstrate is that social media can raise awareness, and that people like to get angry for short bursts. We still have a long way to go before we can demonstarte that this type of outrage-fuelled awareness can drive the sustained actions required to create valid change.

  • October 26, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alec

    I’m no expert in European history, but the French revolution did usher in a period of Jacobean terror and autocracy. Compare the experience with the more gradual democratization of England and where France and the UK are today – a very similar place.

    I think we could argue that significant change was underway in both societies because of industrialization and the printing press, and that big events like the revolution were just symptoms of huge but slow underlying shifts.

    I don’t think these campaigns only create awareness. They also create engagement: getting somebody to send an email – in marketing terms this is a massive achievement. An ad man’s wet dream and worth charging top dollar for.

    But I do agree on this. Sustained campaigns are sometimes warranted and that without them shifts don’t get made. That often requires dedicated campaigners to keep stirring the pot.

    I would like to point out however how these social technologies are making differences in places where it really matters. The Swokanele blog, that campaigns for democracy in Zimbabwe is a good example of this use of social media http://www.sokwanele.com/

    In Namibia the government recently railed against a mainstream media outlet – the Namibian paper. The reason? The editor asked for and printed SMS messages on government corruption.

    Here in the UK the issues are less about life and death and mobilising people is harder. Even then, I think we are witnessing a sea-change – which started long ago – in our relationship with central power and this is helped by new media.

    As an aside, when I was part of the student newspaper at the University of Pretoria, we went all digital. We switched to Pagemaker and all copy was written on a couple of PC’s.

    Because of this we saved massive amounts of money on our production process, allowing us to to become almost completely independent from university funding and much greater freedom to criticise an apartheid institution. Call me a romantic, but I think these changes that makes it easier for people to publish do make a difference.

  • Posted by Alec East
    October 26, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Wessel,

    Now we’re getting into the cumulative long-tail power of the blog versus the ephemeral, yet real-time, status update. This is getting far too interesting and varied for a comments thread.

    We should continue this discussion over a few beers. That would be the appropriately ‘social’ thing to do, after all. Are you about in November?

    Say ‘Hi’ to Gerri for me.

    Al

  • October 29, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I think we will have to do that!

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