The Power of Social Media

In the future, we may well look back on the past week and describe it as the week that the power of social media became apparent to pretty much everyone in the UK. This week social networks have allowed the powers of light to win three victories over the powers of darkness.

It started on Monday with this tweet from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?

The story that he linked to explained that the Guardian had been prevented from reporting on a written question that had been published in the list of the upcoming week’s business in House of Commons. The paper was prevented from publishing the question or any information that might identify the question. They couldn’t even tell us why this draconian measure had been put in place. As the article put it:

Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

All they could tell us was that the legal firm Carter-Ruck were involved in the case.

By Tuesday morning both Twitter and the blogosphere were awash with discussion of this issue. People soon identified a likely candidate for the question that was causing the problems and by lunchtime it was common knowledge that the question was about the company Trafigura and their part in the 2006 dumping of toxic waste off the coast of the Ivory Coast. The court hearing about the injunction was set for 2pm but before the parties got into court, Trafigura and Carter-Ruck evidently saw the futility of the situation and Rusbridger tweeted:

Victory! #CarterRuck caves-in. No #Guardian court hearing. Media can now report Paul Farrelly’s PQ about #Trafigura. More soon on Guardian..

Fifteen minutes later,  the full story was on the Guardian web site. It seems likely to me that Carter-Ruck would not have seen their position as so completely untenable had it not been for the way that the information they were trying to censor had spread around social networks.

On Friday, the Daily Mail published an article by Jan Moir entitled “Why There Was Nothing ‘Natural’ About Stephen Gately’s Death”. Moir used the article to spout all sorts of homophobic bile and to somehow reach the conclusion that Gately’s death proved that same-sex civil unions should be banned. It was gratifying to see how quickly the comments on the article turned against Moir and once again one topic dominated Twitter all day. A Facebook group appeared containing the eminently sensible advice to contact the companies whose adverts had appeared beside the article and ask them to complain to the Mail.

During the afternoon, the online article was renamed to “A Strange, Lonely and Troubling Death” (although the original, more strident, title remained in teasers elsewhere on the site). At about the same time all of the adverts disappeared from the page containing the article. Moir issued a statement trying to defuse the situation, but she was so far from understanding what was going on that she only made matters worse. She accused her tormentors of being an “orchestrated internet campaign”. The Facebook group was the closest that anyone came to orchestration. Everything else was just the genuine anger of people who couldn’t believe what they were reading and passed the link on to their friends.

The article is still on the Mail site and there’s no sign of an apology from Moir or a statement from the Mail. But the Mail took the unusual step of removing the adverts from the article, so the amount of discussion on Twitter and other social networks certainly had an effect. And the article currently has over a thousand comments from readers – the vast majority of which are uncomplimentary. It will be interesting to see if this effects the Mail’s attitude to Twitter in the future. To date their articles on Twitter have been largely disparaging – and they often show total confusion over how Twitter actually works. Perhaps now they’ll have to get to grips with it a little more.

The third story I wanted to share also broke on Friday, which means that it rather suffered from being eclipsed by the Moir story. On Thursday blogger Jonathan Macdonald filmed a London Underground guard being incredibly rude to a passenger. The link to his blog entry on this incident followed Moir’s story around Twitter. It reached Boris Johnson who tweeted:

Appalled by the video. Have asked TfL to investigate urgently. Abuse by passengers or staff is never acceptable.

This story made many of mainstream media outlets that evening – running the story that the guard in question had been suspended pending an investigation. I was going to write something about how social media helped to spread this story, but I see that Jonathan Macdonald has beaten me to it.

So there you have it. Three stories in the same week all of which were taken in unexpected directions by the power of Twitter and other social networks. Hopefully Carter-Ruck, the Daily Mail and the tube guard will all think twice before they’re next tempted by such anti-social behaviour (although, there’s already evidence that Carter-Ruck haven’t learned their lesson).

Where does it go from here?

p.s. If you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m davorg.

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