Brexit

I was awake soon after 5:30 yesterday morning. As I got to my computer, the EU referendum results weren’t confirmed, but it was looking certain that the country had voted (narrowly, but decisively) to leave the European Union. My thoughts during the day are nicely summed up by my tweets and retweets.

My initial reaction was anger.

(Hmm… the downside of rolling news coverage – that story has changed dramatically since I first linked to it.)

A few minutes later I was slightly more coherent (and almost philosophical)

Then the reality of the situation started to sink in

I tried to be positive

I was being sarcastic, of course. We’ll return to this subject later on.

I started to see life imitating art in a quite frightening way.

(And, yes, I know I should replace that picture with one of Boris Johnson)

Nigel Farage is (and, apparently, always has been) a despicable man. So it should have come as no surprise that his victory speech was insulting and divisive.

I don’t mind not being considered ordinary, but I’m certain I’m real and I like to think I’m decent. Tom Coates inverted Farage’s phrase nicely.

When Cameron resigned, I immediately became worried about the fall-out.

Really, if your best option is a man who stuck his penis into a pig’s mouth, then it must be clear that you’re in trouble.

Then I checked the stock market and realised that many of the Brexit supporters may have shot themselves in the foot.

A story in the FT illustrated the fall nicely (“nicely” isn’t really the right word!)

The markets bounced back a bit later in the day – but it was one of the most volatile days of trading in history.

Fox News can, of course, always be relied on to get important facts wrong.

Then I started to see data on the demographics of the voting – where it became obvious that it was mainly the older generations who were voting against the EU

Can I just point out that it’s #NotAllBabyBoomers :-/

Remember the £350m a week that was going to be diverted to the NHS. Turns out that was a lie.

It was a lie on many fronts.

  • It was a lie because the UK doesn’t send £350m a week to the EU
  • It was a lie because it ignored the money that we get back from the EU
  • It was a lie because any money saved was never going to be spent on the NHS

It was a lie that the Leave campaign were called out on many times, but they refused to retract it.

To be fair to Farage (and that’s not a phrase I ever expected to write) he wasn’t part of the official Leave campaign, so he wasn’t the right person to ask about this. But someone should certainly take Johnson or Gove to task over it.

Going back to the baby-boomers, I retweeted a friend’s innocent question

Then it started to look like Cameron might not be the only party leader to go in the fallout from the referendum

Incidentally, has anyone seen any evidence of the Lib Dems in this campaign? A couple of days ago I saw footage of Tim Farron in a crowd somewhere. Took me a few seconds to remember who he was; and then another minute or so to remember that he was the leader of the Lib Dems.

Euro-myths have always really annoyed me

More bad news from the City

I should point out that Morgan Stanley have denied the story. I guess time will tell who is telling the truth here.

By mid-afternoon, I was working on alternative plans

A final thought struck me

I mean, they were a single-issue party. And they’ve won that battle. Surely, there’s no need for the party to exist any longer. They can’t surely expect people to vote for them now (although, UK voters are a very strange bunch). If they closed down, they could all go back to the Tories and Farage and Carswell could get places in the new Johnson/Gove cabinet.

Oh, now I’m really depressed.

Ten Years?

It’s been some considerable time since I wrote anything about Nadine Dorries. I still keep an eye on what she’s up to, but most of the time it’s just the same old nonsense and it’s not worth writing about.

But I was interested to read her recent blog post explaining why she had given up Twitter (again). Of course, she uses it to rehash many of her old claims of stalking and the like, but what I found really interesting was when she said:

After almost ten years on Twitter (so long I can’t remember) and with 28,000 followers, I have made my own modest exit.

Because that “almost ten years” didn’t fit my recollections. Twitter has just had its tenth anniversary. As I wrote recently, almost no-one has been on Twitter for ten years – certainly not any British MPs.

It’s simple enough to use one of the many “how long have I been on Twitter?” sites to work out when her current @NadineDorriesMP account joined Twitter. It seems to be January 2012.

But that’s not the full story. She has joined and left Twitter a few times. Let’s see what we can find out.

Firstly, here’s a blog post from May 2009 where she doesn’t seem to be planning to join Twitter any time soon.

Anyway, safe to say, I shan’t be joining the legions of twitters any day soon.

It’s several months later, in September 2009, when she announces that she has joined Twitter. So that “ten years” is more like six and a half.

I’m pretty sure that first account was also called @NadineDorriesMP. At some point over the next couple of years, she closed that account (I’ll dig through her blog later to see if I can find any evidence to date that) and some time later she returned with a new account called @Nadine_MP. I know that because in May 2011 she gave up that second account and forgot to remove the Twitter widget from her web site. Then someone else took over the now-abandoned username and used it to deface her site. And then, as we saw above, she rejoined in January 2012.

So I think the list of Nadine’s Twitter accounts goes like this:

  • NadineDorriesMP (Sept 2009 – Unknown)
  • Nadine_MP (Unknown – May 2011)
  • NadineDorriesMP (Jan 2012 – Mar 2016)

That last account is still registered. She just chooses not to use it any more. If past behaviour is anything to go by, she’ll be back at some point.

Anyway, here’s another good example of why you can’t trust anything that Dorries says. Even on a simple fact like how long she has been using Twitter, she just pulls numbers out of the air. She makes stuff up to suit her and she’s been doing it for years.

Twitter’s Early Adopters

You’ll be seeing that tweet a lot over the next few days. It’s the first ever public tweet that was posted to the service we now know as Twitter. And it was sent ten years ago by Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders.

Today, Twitter has over a hundred million users, who send 340 million tweets a day (those numbers are almost certainly out of date already) but I thought it would be interesting to look back and look at Twitter’s earliest users.

Every Twitter user has a user ID. That’s an integer which uniquely identifies them to the system. This is a simple incrementing counter[1]. You can use a site like MyTwitterID to get anyone’s ID given their Twitter username. It’s worth noting that you can change your username, but your ID is fixed. When I registered a new account last week, I got an ID that was eighteen digits long. But back in 2006, IDs were far shorter. Jack’s ID, for example, is 12. That’s the lowest currently active ID on the system. I assume that the earlier numbers were used for test accounts.

Using the Twitter API you can write a program that will give you details of a user from their ID. Yesterday I wrote a simple program to get the details of the first 100,000 Twitter users (the code is available on Github). The results from running the program are online. That’s a list of all of the currently active Twitter users with an ID less than 100,000.

The first thing you’ll notice is that there are far fewer than you might expect. The API only returns details on currently active users. So anyone who has closed their account won’t be listed. I expected that perhaps 20-25% of accounts might fall into that category, but it was much higher than that.

There are 12,435 users in the file. That means that 87,500 of the first 100,000 Twitter accounts are no longer active. That was such a surprise to me that I assumed there was a bug in my program. But I can’t find one. It really looks like almost 90% of the early Twitter users are no longer using the service.

The dates that the account were created range from Jack‘s on 21st March 2006 to Jeremy Hulette (ID 99983 – the closest we have to 100,000) exactly nine months later on 21st December 2006.  I guess you could get a good visualisation of Twitter’s early growth by plotting ID against creation date – but I’ll leave that to someone else.

My file also contains location. But it’s important to note that I’m getting the location that is currently associated with that account – not the original location (I wonder if Twitter still have that information). I know a large number of people who were in London when they joined Twitter by who are now in San Francisco, so any conclusions you draw from the location field are necessarily sketchy. But bearing that in mind, here are some “firsts”.

  • First non-Californian: rabble (ID 22, PDX & MVD)
  • First non-America: florian (ID 38, Berlin)
  • First Brit: blaine (ID 246, London)

That last one seems a little high to me. I might have missed someone earlier who didn’t put “UK” in their location.

So who’s on the list? Is there anyone famous? Not that I’ve seen yet. Oh, there are well-known geeks on the list. But no-one you’d describe as a celebrity. No musicians, no actors, no politicians, no footballers or athletes. I may have missed someone – please let me know if you spot anyone.

Oh, and I’m on the list. I’m at number 14753. I signed up (as @davorg) at 11:30 on Wednesday 22nd November 2006. I suspect I’m one of the first thousand or so Brits on the list – but it’s hard to be sure of that.

Anyway, happy birthday to Twitter. I hope that someone finds this data interesting. Let me know what you find.

[1] Actually, there’s a good chance that this is no longer the case – but it was certainly true back in 2006.

TwittElection at OpenTech

Last Saturday was OpenTech. It was as great as it always is and I’ll write more about what I saw later. But I gave a talk about TwittElection in the afternoon and I thought it might be useful to publish my slides here along with a brief summary of what I said.

  • I started with a couple of screenshots of what TwittElection is. There’s basically a main page which shows how many days are left until the general election and a page for every constituency which has a widget displaying a Twitter list for all of the candidates in that constituency.
  • Why did I do it? Well I love elections. I have vague memories of one (or perhaps both) of the 1974 general elections and I have closely followed every general election since then. In the 90s I was occasionally  one of those annoying people who ask you for your voter number as you’re leaving the polling station and in 2005 I worked all night to make sure that the results on the Guardian web site were up to date.
  • I love Twitter too. Who doesn’t?
  • In 2010 I created a site that monitored the candidates in my local constituency. It wasn’t just Twitter (which was far less important back then) but any kind of web feed that they produced. That’s easy enough to do for one constituency, but it’s a bit more of a challenge for 650.
  • The technology for the system was pretty simple. It was the data that was going to be a lot trickier.
  • Just as I was considering the project, Twitter made a couple of changes which made my life substantially easier. Firstly they increased the number of Twitter lists that each user could create from 20 to 1000 (I needed 650). An secondly, they removed the restriction that Twitter list widgets were tightly associated with a specific list. Under the old system, I would have needed to create 650 individual widgets. Under the new system, I could create one widget and pass it a list ID in order to display any of my 650 lists.
  • I wrote the code in Perl. I made a throwaway remark about it being the “programming languages of champions”. Someone in the audience tweeted that quote and it’s been retweeted rather a lot.
  • I hosted the site on Github Pages in case it got too popular. This was a ridiculous thing to be worried about.
  • I used Bootstrap (of course) and small amounts of various Javascript libraries.
  • The data was harder. We have 650 constituencies and each one will have about six candidates. That means I’ll be looking for data about something like 4,000 candidates. And there’s no official centralised source for this data.
  • Back in November I asked my Twitter followers if they knew of anyone who was collecting lists of candidates and Sam Smith put me in touch with the Democracy Club.
  • At the time, the Democracy Club were just building a new version of YourNextMP – a crowd-sourced list of candidates. It did all that I needed. Which made me very happy. [Note: My talk followed one from the Democracy Club which went into this in far more detail.]
  • So with data from YNMP and my code, the site was build.
  • And it worked pretty well. There were a few bugs (including one that was pointed out by a previous speaker in the same session) but they all got fixed quickly.
  • I became an expert in Twitter error codes.
  • 403 and 429 are the codes that Twitter returns when you make more API requests than you are allowed to. There are two ways to deal with Twitter’s rate limits. You can keep a careful count of your requests and stop before you hit the limits. Or you can keep going until you get one of these codes back at which point you stop. The second option is far simpler. I took the second option. [Note: At this point I forgot to mention that the rate limits were so, well…, limiting that when I got my first complete data dump from YNMP, it took almost two days to build all of the Twitter lists.]
  • 108 means you’re trying to do something with a user that doesn’t exist. Basically, you’ve got the username wrong. Sometimes this is because there’s a typo in the name that YNMP has been given. Sometimes it’s because the user has changed their Twitter username and YNMP doesn’t know about the change yet. One common cause for the latter is when MPs changed their Twitter usernames to remove “MP” whilst the campaign was in progress and legally, there were no MPs. [Note: One of the YNMP developers spoke to me afterwards and admitted that they should have handled Twitter usernames better – for example, they could have stored the ID (which is invariant) rather than the username (which can change).]
  • Error 106 means that the user has blocked you and therefore you can’t add that user to a Twitter list. This seems like strange behaviour given that candidates are presumably using Twitter to publicise their opinions as widely as possible.
  • The first time I was blocked it was @glenntingle, the UKIP candidate for Norwich North.
  • I wondered why he might be blocking me. A friend pointed out that he might be embarrassed by his following habits. It turned out that of the 700 people he followed on Twitter, all but about a dozen of them were young women posting pictures of themselves wearing very little.
  • There was some discussion of this amongst some of my friends. This was apparently noticed by Mr Tingle who first protected his tweets and then deleted his account.
  • I’m not sure how good I feel about hounding a candidate off of Twitter.
  • Another UKIP candidate, @timscottukip, also blocked me. And I heard of another who was running his account in protected mode.
  • Some users didn’t understand crowd-sourcing. Every constituency page included a link to the associated page on YNMP along with text asking people to submit corrections there. But I still got a lot of tweets pointing out errors in my lists.
  • 72% of candidates were on Twitter.
  • Results by party were mixed. 100% of the SNP candidates were on Twitter, but only 51% of UKIP candidates (or perhaps I couldn’t see the others as they were blocking me!)
  • Was it worth it? Well, only 1000 or so people visited the site over the course of the campaign.
  • I haven’t yet seen if I can get any stats on people using the raw Twitter lists rather than looking at my web site.
  • I need to rip out all of the information that is specific to that particular election and encourage people to use the code for other elections. YNMP is based on software called PopIt and I think my code could be useful wherever that is used.
  • There are 1790 days until the next UK general election (as of Saturday 13th June 2015).

Quoted By The Daily Mail

This morning Tweetdeck pinged and alerted me to this tweet from a friend of mine.

He was right too. The article was about Reddit’s Button and about half-way though it, they quoted my tweet.

My reaction was predictable.

I was terribly embarrassed. Being quoted in the Daily Mail isn’t exactly great for your reputation. So I started wondering if there was anything I could do to to recover the situation.

Then it came to me. The Mail were following Twitter’s display guidelines and were embedding the tweets in the web page (to be honest, that surprised me slightly – I was sure they would just take a screenshot). This meant that every time someone looked at the Mail’s article, the Mail’s site would refresh its view of the tweet from Twitter’s servers.

You can’t edit the content of tweets once they had been published. But you can change some of the material that is displayed – specifically your profile picture and your display name.

So, over lunch I took a few minutes to create a new profile picture and I changed my display name to “The Mail Lies”. And now my tweet looks how you see it above. It looks the same on the Mail article.

As I see it, this can go one of two ways. Either I the Mail notice what I’ve done and remove my tweet from the article (in which case I win because I’m no longer being quoted by the Daily Mail). Or they don’t notice and my tweet is displayed on the article in its current form – well at least until I get bored and change my profile picture and display name back again.

This afternoon has been quite fun. The caper has been pretty widely shared on Twitter and Facebook and couple of people have told me that I’ve “won the internet”.

So remember boys and girls, publishing unfiltered user-generated content on your web site is always a dangerous prospect.

TwittElection

Front page of the TwittElection web site

I was convinced that the general election in 2010 was going to be the “Twitter election”. I built a web site (now sadly lost somewhere in cyberspace) that monitored what PPCs were saying on Twitter in my local constituency. But, all in all, it wasn’t very impressive. I gave a talk about how disappointing it had all been but then I forgot about it all.

But there’s another general election coming. And, surely, this one must be the Twitter election? A lot has changed in the last five years. Everyone is using Twitter. Surely this time some useful and interesting political discussion will take place on Twitter.

I set the bar a lot higher this time. Instead of just monitoring my local constituency, I’ve created a site that monitors all 650 constituencies in the country. Each constituency has a page, and on that page you’ll find a Twitter widget which displays a list I’m curating which contains all of the PPCs I can find for that constituency.

Well, when I say “I can find”, that’s a bit of a simplification. Obviously, finding details of all of the PPCs for 650 constituencies would be a bit of a mammoth task. But I’ve had help. There is a wonderful site called YourNextMP which is crowdsourcing details of all of the PPCs. And they have an API which allows me to grab their data periodically and update my information. If you have any information about PPCs in a constituency that they don’t already have, please consider adding it to their database.

After I found YourNextMP, it was just a simple matter of programming. I made heavy use of the Twitter API (via the Net::Twitter Perl module) and I’ve hosted the site on Github Pages (so I don’t need to worry if it suddenly gets massively popular). All of my code is available on Github – so feel free to send pull requests if there are features you’d like to add.

Oh, and obviously there’s a Twitter account – @TwittElection. Follow that if you want updates about the site or general chatter about the election campaign.

Today marks 100 days until the general election. I thought that was an appropriate day on which to officially launch the site.

Please let me know if you find the site useful.

Gullible

Did you know that the word “gullible” doesn’t actually appear in the OED?

A lot of people I know spend a lot of time poking holes in tabloid stories. It’s fun hobby for all the family. The tabloids are so bad at checking facts that it’s usually easy to find the basic flaws in things that they print. The internet makes it so easy to check facts that there’s no excuse not to do it. Oh, sure there’s a lot of nonsense out there too but it’s usually pretty simple to separate the facts from the nonsense.

Which is why it’s disappointing when people just don’t bother.

This image was all over Twitter and Facebook when I woke up this morning. It’s a great image. The idea of a sporting hero like Bradley Wiggins having a go at Piers Morgan like that is brilliant. It would be fantastic if it was true.

It’s not though.

And it’s easy enough to find out what actually happened. Both men have public Twitter feeds, it’s just a case of searching back to find the tweets in question. It took me a couple of minutes to find this exchange (it’s from a week ago).

And yes, I was very disappointed @bradwiggins didn’t sing the anthem either. Show some respect to our Monarch please!

— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) August 2, 2012

.@piersmorgan I was disappointed when you didn’t go to jail for insider dealing or phone hacking, but you know, each to his own @bradwiggins

— Colm Quinn (@mrcolmquinn) August 2, 2012

See that. The reply isn’t from @bradwiggins at all, it’s from @mrcolmquinn. And he wasn’t even pretending to be Bradley Wiggins or anything nefarious like that. He just included @bradwiggins’ name in the tweet so that Wiggins would see what was going on.

I’m not sure what happened after that. I think that for almost a week nothing much happened. At some point those two tweets were turned into the image above. I don’t who created the image or why they did it. I don’t even know whether they misread the tweets and genuinely thought that the reply came from Wiggins or whether they were trying to cause trouble.

I do know that overnight last night people started to share the image on Facebook and Twitter. And that pretty much everyone who shared it didn’t bother to do the two minutes of research it would take to find out what really happened.

The reply was a good one. Morgan certainly deserved it for being such an idiot about the national anthem. And I’m glad that it got a wider audience. I just wish that people weren’t taken in so easily when they see something that they want to be true.

The next time you go to share something like this with your friends, why not pause a couple of minutes and find out whether or not it’s actually true. Prove that you’re better than a tabloid journalist.

Oh, by the way, it’s not true about the word “gullible” either.

Nadine Dorries: Just Say No

Today was the day that parliament had a rather long list of private members bills to debate. Originally there were sixty-four on the list. As this informative post from Kerry McCarthy tells us, they’d normally expect to get through about three of them. The MPs sponsoring the rest of the bills were pretty much wasting their time.

Number eight on the original list was Nadine Dorries bill to teach girls between 13 and 16 how to say no to sex. The Guardian’s headline was MPs to debate sexual abstinence lessons bill, which was slightly disingenuous as the chance of the debate reaching that far down the list was tiny.

But this morning, when the order of business for today in parliament was published Dorries bill was missing from the list. Everyone assumed that Dorries was responsible for this removal. As a spokeswoman for the Commons information office told the Guardian “No one would be able to remove a private members’ bill without the permission of a member”. The assumption seemed to be that Dorries had realised the futility of being so far down the list and had removed the bill. She wouldn’t have been the only one – the published list only contains forty-nine of the expected sixty-four bills.

At lunchtime, things got even more interesting. A new Twitter account called @NadineDorriesMP appeared with this tweet (in reply to a joke by John Prescott):

@johnprescott My bill has not ‘jumped off at Edge Hill’ if you care to read the order paper, it’s number eight on the list!!

Something about this timeline didn’t seem right to me. That tweet was posted at 12:47, which is almost two hours since I first saw the order of business without her bill. I assume the order of business was published some time earlier. The first hint I had that the bill had been withdrawn was this blog post by Kerry McCarthy which was published just after 10am.

On the basis that the real Nadine Dorries would have known by 12:47 that her bill was not on the order paper, I called the new Twitter account as a fake. But it seems I was wrong. People like Iain Dale confirmed that it really was her (and, yes, this is one of the few things I’d trust Iain Dale on).

All of which leaves us with a bit of a mystery. Either Dorries withdrew her bill or she didn’t. If she did then the first tweet on her new Twitter account is a complete lie. If she didn’t then we need to ask who did withdraw her bill – given that it’s only her who is supposed to be able to do that.

And even if someone else managed to withdraw her bill without her knowledge, something still doesn’t ring true. If she was expecting to debate her bill (no matter how tiny the chance) then surely she would have been hanging around in parliament all morning and I can’t believe that she didn’t see the order paper and notice her bill was missing. Or that one of her friends saw that it was missing and asked her what happened.

All in all I find it incredible that she could have got to 12:47 without knowing that her bill was not on the list. So how do you explain that tweet?

This is, I think, the third time that Dorries has joined Twitter. And with her first tweet she has already started people thinking that this time is going to be no different to the previous occasions. She will be ineptly trying to use it to promote her strange view of the world. And she will quickly make herself a laughing stock once more.

Update: At 16:37 this afternoon, @NadineDorriesMP tweeted the following:

Just to make it absolutely clear and leave no doubt whatsoever, my Bill was NOT withdrawn

Curiouser and curiouser. So, now we are left with two questions. 1/ Why wasn’t Dorries’ bill on the order paper? And 2/ At what point did she realise it wasn’t on the order paper?

Update 2: Welshracer may have got to the heart of the matter here. He points out what it says on the official parliamentary web page for Dorries’ bill.

The Bill was not printed and so was not moved for debate on 20 January 2012.

What do we make of this? One interpretation would be that Dorries didn’t withdraw the bill for debate, but that someone in her office forgot to get the bill printed so that it could be included in the debate.

But even in those circumstances you’d think that she’d get a phone call from the people who were planning the day’s business telling her what had (or hadn’t) happened. I still can’t believe that she didn’t know the bill wasn’t on the order paper when she sent her first tweet at quarter to one.

Update 3: Couple more pieces of information came in overnight.

Firstly, it seems that the new @NadineDorriesMP Twitter account was set up two weeks ago. It seems she resisted using it until goaded into it by John Prescott yesterday.

Secondly, the Independent managed to speak to Dorries about this confusion. She says:

The Bill is still live, but there was more chance of being struck by a meteor than getting it debated, so we told the Commons office not to bother printing a hard copy. What I didn’t realise was that if you don’t order it to be printed, it automatically comes off the agenda.

Of course I wouldn’t withdraw it … a lot of people had paid train fares to come and protest. It would have been churlish.

So we finally have the truth (or, at least, Dorries’ version of it). She knew it wouldn’t be debated so she decided not to have the bill printed. She didn’t know that would automatically remove it from the order paper. She didn’t withdraw the bill out of respect for the people who were coming to protest against it.

It’s also not clear to me in what sense the bill is still live. This was the final opportunity to debate private members bills before the end of this parliamentary session. Any unfinished business from this parliamentary session doesn’t get passed on to the next one, so anything that wasn’t approved is, as far as I can see, effectively dead.

You couldn’t make this up!

Did Twitter Censor #GodIsNotGreat?

[Executive summary: Betteridge’s Law (probably) applies]

The Twitter furore over the #GodIsNotGreat hash tag has pretty much died down now, but there’s one branch of the debate that is still getting comments and retweets. Here’s an example from johnwilander.

#GodIsNotGreat pulled from trends because christians protest. But #ReasonsToBeatYourGirlfriend was allowed. Stay classy, @Twitter.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the hashtag vanished from the list of global trending topics on Friday morning. And this conspiracy theory leapt up almost immediately. As far as I can see, none of the people repeating this claim have any evidence to back it up – which is more than somewhat ironic given Hitchens’ evidence-driven view of the world.

The argument seems to go like this: At one point the hashtag was trending. Then Christians got upset and starting making death threats aimed at the people who started the trend. Soon after that, the hashtag was no longer trending. Therefore Twitter must have given in to Christian bullying and censored the hashtag.

Whilst it all sounds frighteningly possible, I hope I don’t have to spell out the flaws in the logic. If you can’t work it out for yourself then I recommend the Wikipedia article on Correlation does not imply Causation.

I could be wrong here. There might be some irrefutable piece of evidence proving conclusively that Twitter deliberately censored the hashtag. If there is, then I haven’t seen it and I’d be grateful to anyone who could bring it to my attention.

There is, however, some evidence that Twitter didn’t censor the hashtag. On Friday morning, as the debate still raging, a Facebook friend in Canada pointed out that it was still trending there. In the middle of the afternoon someone pointed out that it was still trending in San Francisco. So if Twitter were censoring it, they weren’t doing a very good job. There’s even someone who apparently works for Twitter saying that they didn’t do it.

Of course, none of this is conclusive evidence that Twitter didn’t censor the hashtag. But balancing some evidence for non-censorship against absolutely no evidence at all for the censorship I know which side I come out on.

All of which leaves us searching for an explanation for the sudden disappearance. And, to be honest, I don’t think we really need to look too hard. Things stop being trending topics all the time. Things have to drop out of the list so that new things can come in. Otherwise the list would constantly be full of nonsense about Justin Bieber and Twilight. The Twitter trending topics algorithm can’t possibly just measure the popularity of topics. That would be incredibly dull. Instead, what it does is to look for changes in popularity. A steady buzz of the same few million people talking about a particular topic doesn’t get noticed, but a sudden increase in the number of people discussing the same topic does. The Buffer blog has a good explanation of this and the official Twitter blog says much the same thing.

I’m sure that this won’t convince the conspiracy theorists. “Ah,” they’ll say, “That’s all very convenient. But that just gives Twitter an easy way to cover up their censorship..” Which is true, I suppose, but hardly a basis for a rational discussion.

And that’s the most disappointing thing to come out of this affair. The people making this accusations are fans of Christopher Hitchens. You would hope they’d be from the more rational end of the spectrum. You’d hope that they would be above making accusations like this without evidence. I guess no-one is immune from irrationality.

But I’m going to go out on a limb here. And lay my cards on the table. And other clichés that Hitchens would despise.

Twitter (probably) didn’t censor the #GodIsNotGreat hashtag.

Update: The author of the tweet I quoted above seems to agree with me.

Hitchens’ Last Laugh

This morning I woke up to the terrible (although not completely unexpected) news that Christopher Hitchens had died. The rational community has, of course, lost one of its most erudite and interesting members. But it seems that Christopher had one last trick up his sleeve.

As with most breaking news these days, I found out about his death from Twitter. I checked my Twitter feed as I got up at about 6am. A few people that I follow were already awake and discussing it. As a mark of respect, many of those tweets were tagged with the name of Hitchens’ best known book “God Is Not Great“. And then more and more people started to do that. And before too long, the hashtag #GodIsNotGreat was listed as one of Twitter’s worldwide trending topics. At which point it started to go a bit weird.

All around the world religious people who knew nothing at all about Christopher Hitchens, his books or his death were looking at Twitter and seeing the tag #GodIsNotGreat. And that annoyed many of them immensely. So they started tweeting on the subject. Their tweets seemed to largely fall into three categories.

1/ What is this? And why is it trending?

2/ Attempts to inject their own beliefs into the stream – “God isn’t just great – he’s the GREATEST!!” (from someone called foolishdenise – you couldn’t make this up)

3/ Threats to kill whoever had started the hashtag (all very Christian) [UPDATE: Replaced a tweet with a rather NSFW background with another expressing the same sentiment]

Of course, all of these new tweets all included the hashtag. So that just helped ensure that the hashtag became even more popular. Hitchens fans replied, pointing out why the hashtag was trending (and inviting them to read the book) and the hashtag was tweeted and retweeted and commented on and argued over more than pretty much any other hashtag I’ve followed all year. For most of the morning the Tweetdeck column I set up to follow the tag was moving too fast for me to follow it.

At some point in the morning, the hashtag disappeared from the list of trending topics. Some people claimed that Twitter had removed it deliberately in response to the Christian death threats. But it seems slightly ironic for Hitchens fans to claim something like that without any firm evidence. I suspect that it’s more likely that once a hashtag reaches a plateau of activity then Twitter’s algorithm ignores it – otherwise the top trend would always be Justin Bieber (as two people pointed out to me). Apparently it’s still trending in Canada. But I’m not sure what that proves about anything.

One tweet in particular from luketadams summed things up for me.

Hitchens dies. His book #GodisNotGreat trends. Religious people threaten violence. The point of his book is proven. Hitchens for the win.

It’s tempting to imagine Hitchens looking down on the storm that his death has caused and laughing. But that would go against everything that he believed in.

So don’t do that. Instead, reread his articles, buy his books, watch videos of him demolishing his opponents in debate. And remember the great mind that we have lost.