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Democracy 2.0?

21:49 on Thu, 22 Oct 2009 | Social Media | 0 Comments

I should really whisper this sort of thing around here, but I've never really been a fan of Twitter. It always struck me as a phenomenal waste of time. Surely everyday tasks would take twice as long if you document them afterwards in 140 characters or less? I dismissed it as a publishing tool for navel gazers and the easily distracted.

I had been reliably informed that it's great for networking and for link building. Perhaps that was true, but I just couldn't be bothered to wade through all minutae of other people's lives to get to the good bits. I struggle as it is to keep up with all the useless information my brain chucks at me – let alone having to deal with everyone else's. 

In case any loyal Twits (is that the right word?) are about to switch off, I should say at this point that this post isn't really about knocking microblogging. In fact, a few recent events have convinced me that there might be something of significance in the Twittersphere.

You may have recently come across a news item about a previously little know company called Trafigura. For those that haven't, I'll attempt to summarise it without being too political/libellous about the whole thing. Try rearranging the following words: oil trading company, bit naughty, carpet, sweep, under, thousands, people, injured, toxic, waste. 

Obviously said company, worried about its reputation, would not want a report about the above to enter the public domain. So said company, following normal protocol, employs their usual law firm to get an injunction against publication of the report. So far, so simple. 

Things get a litlle more complicated when they also attempt to get an injunction against publication of the fact of the original injunction (a so-called 'super injunction'). This means that all newspapers could report was along the lines of 'we know something about something that we can't tell you about'. 

It would seem that Trafigura had succeeding in protecting the reputation of their brand. Handshakes and pats on backs all round.

The fact an MP had tabled a parliamentary question about the report didn't in itself appear to challenge the robustness of the injunction. All the law firm had to do was remind the newspapers of their duty not to report the question as this would constitute a breach of the injunction. All very well and good, except they had forgotten the small fact of parliamentary supremacy and the freedom of the press to report on proceedings therein.

It would seem that the press had been denied a right protected in English common law since the Nineteenth century. Normally this would result in a trip to the High Court and however many thousands of pounds in legal fees to challenge the terms of the injunction.

What they hadn't banked on was the power of the Twittersphere. With some prompting from the Guardian newspaper, Twitter was soon abuzz with the story and microbloggers everywhere were either expressing outrage, contacting MPs, or even releasing details of the report contrary to the injunctions.

Faced with such a tide of public opinion and the publication of the very details that it had sought to repress, Trafigura caved in. I don't think it's going too far to say that the Twitttersphere played a vital role in highlighting and protecting a fundamental freedom. What previously may have taken weeks of protests, strongly worded letters, and High Court proceedings was accomplished in hours by ordinary folk at home on their laptops.

But it's not just the political and legal establishment who should take note of the potential power of Twitter. Anyone can be a target, even newspapers themselves. The outrage expressed at opinion piece written by Jan Moir of the Daily Mail about the death of Stephen Gately is revelatory in this respect. 

Ms Moir published an article on the Daily Mail website about the death of Stephen Gately that was, at the very least tasteless and badly timed, and at worst more than just a bit homophobic. Lots of people who read the article were upset at its content and duly submitted disapproving comments on the site. Previously this, a complaint from the family, and perhaps a subsequent apology in somewhere in the paper would have been the end of the matter.

That was until SuperTwits (sorry, but it just sounds so good) such as Stephen Fry picked up on the story and engaged the Twittersphere in protest. The Press Complaints Commission website crashed under the weight of traffic from the public wanting to complain about the article. The story became headline news on the BBC and Jan Moir was forced into releasing a statement that afternoon defending her piece. There has even been a complaint to the police on the grounds of inciting homophobia.

More troubling for the Mail was the immediate response from advertisers. Those companies with adverts appearing the same page as the article were quick to request their removal. Marks & Spencer publically demanded this, whilst at the same time distancing themselves from the opinions expressed by Moir.

By the afternoon the article was still live, with all advertising removed. This would be of great concern to the owners of the Daily Mail. Newspapers are struggling with dwindling advertising revenue as it is. It would seem the article has now been removed from the site. We'll wait to see what happens to Moir.

Does this herald a new era for democracy or just increased power to the mob? Whatever your opinion, it wouldn't be going overboard to say that there has been a detectable shift in the balance of power between the traditional establishment and the public at large. 

One fact is indisputable; it's more important than ever to be aware of what is being said about your organisation online. It's really worth considering Online PR and reputation management as an integral part of your Marketing and PR spend, not only for the crisis management of events like these, but to raise your online brand profile and drive traffic to your site.



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