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People power : twitter is highlighting & affecting important issues.

A few weeks a go (why, the 12th Oct in fact) I was sitting at my laptop during the evening, doing this and that with Twitter ticking away on the right. I glanced at the newest tweets to pop in and noticed one from secretlondon.

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Curious, I read the Guardian article it linked to. A gagging order to stop a paper report the proceedings of parliament. This is not very good. I muttered and got back on with the this and that. A few minutes later another tweet from secretlondon came in:

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Now we have seeds of information! To Hansard, To Wikipedia, To Google. Who were Trafigura, who were Carter-Ruck?

Soon other tweets were coming along about this, and I was adding my two pence too, re-tweeting the news and adding my own little links to what I was finding.

Hansard provided the details the Guardian couldn’t report, and it quickly became clear what they were trying to hide.

By now twitter was alight. Hashtags came in to usage. Following these produced more information, once someone found something, they didn’t just share with their followers, but with everyone now following those tags. Previous Guardian articles (amongst others) were brought to our collective attention.

Before this I had not heard of Trafigura or Carter-Ruck. I suspect many were the same, yet now we were angry about what we read about their questionable activities (one apparently dumps nasty stuff in Africa, the other boasts about suppressing the press, regardless of truth). A storm was brewing and I felt it had yet to peek. But it was late and sleep beckoned.

The next morning I was curious if there had been any developments over night.

First thing I came across was a Spectator online article (a publication on the other side of the political spectrum to the Guardian). It quoted the Guardian article heavily, but then went on to quote the part of Hansard that contained the question (and company name) that the Guardian could not and provided links. I tip my hat to them. #Trafigura was now trending, celebrity twitterers (including our Lord Steven Fry) were highlighting it and more.

It felt like it was everywhere, on the news, and over in coffee room colleagues were talking about it. The Streisand effect had truly kicked in. Before noon on the 13th the case had been dropped. The Guardian was no longer prevented on reporting on the story.

Five Days later

Five days later a Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote a homophobic piece (since edited) about the very recent death of singer Stephen Gately. A similar thing happens. A storm brews up. Not organised. But distributed little efforts or raising attention, mainly through twitter, which leads to coverage in main stream media and changes to the article and headline.

Black Out and Breaking News

And back in February there was a ‘black out’ campaign because of a proposed repressive internet law in New Zealand. Again, partly due to the coverage on sites like twitter, the section in question was scrapped.

It’s not just campaigns and activism. Breaking news is spread rapidly via twitter, such as the plane crash in New York (Twitter broke the story, and first images of the plane in the water came from Twitter), and Michael Jackson’s death.

But twitter doesn’t always have it’s own way. There was a Green avatar campaign for democracy in Iran, which sadly never saw success.

We’re seeing two things here…

1 – That information is now able to spread much faster than it ever has before. This has always been the case with the Internet, and has increased each year with new technologies (blogs, social networking), but especially with twitter.

2 – That people spreading this information leads to the main stream press reporting on it, and those under pressure back tracking. (I wonder how essential that middle step is?)

Twitter is such a good tool for the first point. It is instantaneous, not just the web, but on computer twitter clients and phones, and messages are public by default (unlike many other social networking sites where they are restricted to a specific groups or trusted circle of friends). Having an Open technical platform (which allows any other website or application to access tweets) also helps.

So…

My instant reaction is that this must be a good thing. When something bad is happening in the world (sorry, that sounds very simplistic) twitter, and other websites, can spread the information quickly and widely, even to those who don’t follow the news each day. This can lead to positive change.

The Trafigura/Carter-Ruck case is a good example of this. Imagine if it had happened 10 years a go. People (well, only Guardian readers) would have read the Guardian front page but not had a clue what it was about. In fact The Guardian may well not have run it as a front page story (or at all) as it would have simply confused/frustrated their readership. The Guardian took a gamble by putting this on to the front page, knowing (hoping) it would then become a story in its own right. It did, probably more than they ever hoped.

Noteworthy information is a virus, once it is in the wild it is unstoppable.

But all is not rosy. It will be slippery slope. I’m reminded of the 1995 film ‘the Last Supper‘. In the film they start off killing of the worst people in society, but as time goes on, things become more complex and grey and less clear cut. The Trafigura case was clear cut. Those trying to stop the BBC putting Nick Griffin on to Question Time, less so. There’s a thin line between the people power righting wrongs and mob rule.

One final example – baby and bump

Last Christmas I came across a news story about a ‘Lapland in the New Forest’. Long story short it was a con. Promised a lot, but was little more than muddy fields and a few fun fair (pay to use) rides, two santas (queue for hours, not allowed to take photos) and the odd tree with fairly lights, with staff who were untrained and the worst possible people to be interacting with kids.

For some reason I looked up to find out more. And I came across a thread on a web based forum called baby and bump (you can guess what it’s for). The thread was the top result on Google so became one of the main exchanges on the web for those affected by this.

The thread starts off with a few excited people discussing going to the Lapland attraction and how excited the kids are, and how much they have splashed out (money they couldn’t afford to throw away). Then those who visited the first few days after opening reported back, while others are in denial that it can be that bad. Then it really starts, more report back, and others start to join the forum simply to add their experience.

Then the fact finding starts: the owners name and address, other business addresses, legal rights, who in the council to complain to, who in the press to contact, how to file a small claims, the owner is related to the leader of Brighton (my) Council!

I like this example. It isn’t the twitterati or tech-savy web2.0 types, but just families on a simple web forum. No one organised anything, but many added bits of info, supported others, or shared their experiences. I would say it very much played it’s part in the early closure of this cruel con. After returning from a horrible day, cold, upset kids, after paying quite a sum upfront, it must feel frustrating and helpless, I think even finding others who have been through the same must be of some help. The Internet can really help in such situations. But it’s not the power of the internet, it’s the power of people. The Internet just acts as a enabling tool.

So Twitter is allowing us to share information and become aware of facts/situations in a way not thinkable until now, and at a very quick speed.

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