Twitter vs the British Press (the Cases of Carter Ruck and Jan Moir)

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Two things this week have shown the weakness of the traditional media outlets in the face of online communities of people. On Monday a judge issued an embargo on the Guardian newspaper to stop it reporting a question that was asked in the House of Commons. Within 18 hours not only had this embargo been lifted, but the question itself had possibly become the most reprinted and widest spread question ever raised in the British Parliament.

Then on Friday, an article by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail on the death of pop star Stephen Gately provoked considerable discussion on Twitter thanks to its controversial associations between Gately’s sexuality and the manner of his death.

If we’ve learnt one thing this week, it’s that people are willing to talk and express their opinions in Twitter in ever increasing numbers.

Both instances show the role that Twitter, and online communities more broadly, have to play in questioning, challenging and debating issues raised by traditional media outlets. And both cases show how online communities are more nimble and more able to harness, express and promote the range of opinions that people have.

In the case of the embargo on the Guardian, Twitter became an investigative tool. Within moments of the newspaper reporting that it had been prevented from reporting a particular question that was asked in the House of Commons, people had come together in the online community to solve the problem of what that question was. It very soon turned out that it was a question about a British oil trading firm, Trafigura, and Carter-Ruck their law firm. Whilst a British judge had prevented the Guardian from printing this question, Twitter faced no such restrictions. The question was quickly circulated and discussed; read and republished by many thousands of people all while the newspaper was prevented from even acknowledging that the same question existed. If you wanted to know the truth of what was happening on Monday, you didn’t go to the news outlets. You went to Twitter.

By the time the embargo on the question was lifted it had been discussed for almost 18 hours in a public forum. With the large and growing Twitter user base, the fact that the Guardian had been prevented from printing the question became almost irrelevant. People were able to read, and perhaps more importantly, discuss this forbidden question quite openly in Twitter. Together they could find and share information about Trafigura and Carter-Ruck and debate the various opinions on the issue. So not only was Twitter able to print the question that the Guardian was prevented of doing, they were also able to host and facilitate an online community of people discussion and debating the issue behind the question. Much more than traditional media could ever do.

Then on Friday, Twitter again came into its own when faced with discussions in traditional media, this time an article by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail. Whatever you think about Moir’s article you cannot deny the breadth and volume of discussions on Twitter about it. This time it was less about Twitter being a source of information where traditional media was unable to do so, and more about Twitter providing a way for people to debate and dispute the very issues raised in the article. And then to organise themselves to campaign against the article itself.

Many many people on Twitter were angry about Moir’s article and expressed their anger in a number of ways. They expressed their unhappiness. They debated and disputed with each other. And they proactively provided information on how to complain. The online community in Twitter was able to do things that would not be possible with traditional media, providing a space for a meta-discussion about the article and about the issues raised.

In both of these cases, Twitter has really come to its own as an online community. It allows people to first identify and then express themselves with other people who share the same opinions and interests as them. Information is traded between people and shared and spread to reach as wide a group as possible.

People often ask and debate why people take part in discussions and debates online. The truth is that they will do so if they share similar interests, are facing similar questions, want to solve similar problems or provide similar resources. If they share something, they will share information with each other. This is the real power of online communities and the way in which you can grow them and engage more people. Faced with this, they pose a significant and dangerous threat to traditional media.

This week in the UK it is at least Twitter 2; the British press 0.

Image by nicdalic via Flickr

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