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Comment: The rise of ‘smart’ or ‘not so smart’ internet mobs and their pressure on the media

Jan Moir is the latest ‘victim’ of the virtual mob. Last Friday after her ill-judged article in the Daily Mail cast doubt on the natural death of Boyzone’s singer Stephen Gately in Majorca, using a tone widely-perceived as homophobic, the blogosphere went mad seeking revenge.

Two thousand joined a Facebook group within hours, hundreds wrote to the Press Complaints Commission, inspired and pointed there on Twitter by Stephen Fry and Derren Brown.

The PCC was bounced into contacting Boyzone’s PR company to see if it wanted to complain. The Mail pulled ads on its website. BBC mentioned the Mail article in its news bulletins on Gately’s funeral.

Moir was forced to eat crow the very same day as publication and issued a statement of correction/clarification (you take your pick), claiming complaints against her Daily Mail article were mischievously ‘orchestrated’.

In response, HelpMeInvestigate.com, the crowd-sourced journalism site in beta, has launched an investigation into the nature of the campaign: just how ‘organised’ was the #janmoir / Jan Moir campaign, it asks.

So how democratic are these manifestations of the virtual mob?

The political and social pressure on broadcasters and other media  brought about by the internet and ad hoc Facebook groups in particular is double edged.

It can lead to interactivity and enrichment but it can also lead to bullying by keystroke. The zenith of that was the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand row in the autumn of 2008 but nowadays broadcasters, especially the BBC, are facing ‘crowd pressure’ from internet groups set up for or against a cause or a programme; they are an internet ‘flash mob. With the emphasis, maybe, on the ‘mob’.

When Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand rang up the veteran actor Andrew Sachs on October 18 2008 and were disgustingly obscene to him about his grand-daughter, that led to a huge public row on ‘taste,’ mainly stoked by the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.

Fuel was added to the fire through comments by the Prime Minister. The ‘prosecuting’ virtual group was the editorial staff of the Mail newspapers and its millions of readers in Middle England. In support of the ‘Naughty Two’, more than 85,000 people joined Facebook support groups.  Many, perhaps most, had never heard the ‘offensive’ programme. Just two had complained after the first broadcast.

The BBC was forced after a public caning to back down, the director-general yanked back from a family holiday to publicly apologise, Brand and his controller resigned and Ross was suspended from radio and television for three months. The virtual mob smelt blood: it got it.

The battleground for this mass virtual protest had been set out over the transmission of the programme ‘Jerry Springer; the Opera’ in January 2005. Fifty five thousand Christians petitioned the BBC to pull it from the schedules because of  its profanity and alleged blasphemy. They engaged in modern guerilla warfare tactics to try to achieve their aim. Senior BBC executives had to change their home phone numbers to avoid that  pressure. That campaign  did not get a ‘result’. If Facebook had been in full flow then, the 55,000 may well have been 555,000 and the result very different.

This row set out the stall and template for the ‘popular virtual’ activism that culminated in Ross/Brand in 2008 and other cases since. In the good old days, ‘stormovers’ – as the brave founding father of Channel Four Sir Jeremy Isaacs called them –  were conducted slowly and in green ink. He survived many such ‘storms’. Today the storms straddle the world in minutes and are just a keystroke or several score of them away from going nuclear.

This is activism by the click. It needs no commitment apart from signing up on a computer. It gives the illusion of democracy and belonging to a movement whereas in reality is it membership of  a mob, albeit a virtual one? Is this healthy for democracy and media accountability or not?

Discuss. Online.

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He is a former BBC, ITV and Channel Four producer. Additional research by Peter Woodbridge from Coventry University.

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  • Marcus Dore

    It is a significantly more democratic than the old way, where the powers that be where bounced by tacky, self-serving, tabloid journalists and uninformed ‘commentators’ with a weekly opinion column in a rag that isn’t fit for purpose as toilet paper.

    Old media may not like what is happening – but the facts remain that it is happening, that it is significantly more democratic and that old media had better up its game if it wishes to remain believable.

  • Pippa

    I see how you interpret the Jan Moir case as cyber bullying and how it has the potential to be so, but I think you’re wrong in this instance. It wasn’t ‘orchestrated’ by Fry and Brown. Twitter followers aren’t sheep. Many of us are intelligent individuals – journalists and writers – who use Twitter in a professional capacity to exchange information. It differs greatly from Facebook in this respect. Many of us took the time to read the Daily Mail article in full and were genuinely disgusted by it because it was an ill-judged piece of journalism, not because Stephen Fry told us how to think. Anybody who believes this does not understand the nature of Twitter or how it works. However, the anger is not simply directed at Moir but her employer. There are many of us who are tired of the thinly disguised poison masquerading as journalism which is often peddled by the Mail and tars us all with the same brush.

  • mark

    If using the internet to voice your genuine outrage about one journalist’s mean-spirited abuse of her power makes you part of a “mob”, then so does voting.

  • http://mattwpbs.com MattWPBS

    I think there’s an overestimation of how much this spread via celebrity Twitter accounts, rather than via forums, e-mail, general Facebook chatter, office conversations, etc. I know a lot of people who could be described as ‘digital natives’, but do not have a Twitter account or any intention of getting one. The Jan Moir article went viral because it was so incredibly offensive, not because someone Twittered about it. It went viral by many, many routes, and because it was readily available online it was possible for people to read the article and make their own judgement call surrounding it (as opposed to Ross’s show).

    There have been comments from people within the PCC in the media today, saying that most of the 21,000 complaints they have received appear to be individual letters, rather than a copied form letter. I think that’s an indication that this is a very organic storm, rather than something orchestrated. People appear genuinely outraged at Jan Moir’s insensitivity, poor journalism, and barely veiled insinuations as to how she felt Gateley’s homosexuality related to his death.

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  • http://www.proscot-pr.co.uk Ann

    This is just one example which highlights the versatility of social media; people can generate online conversations about anything that grabs their attention or in this case angers them. From inane conversation to debates that may or may not lead participants to organise action and focus groups. People now have a choice of vehicle with which to air a grievance, debate the issue, gather support and demand action – fast!

    We all need to recognise this and prepare to discuss and/or defend any message or opinion that we intend to offer into the public domain – before we do so. Those with a responsibility for informing or persuading the public no longer have the luxury of time to reflect and prepare.

    As for creating a ‘significantly more democratic’ society? we shall have to wait and see.

  • Kelton Baker

    “It gives the illusion of democracy and belonging to a movement whereas in reality is it membership of a mob, albeit a virtual one?”

    Please realize that democracy IS mob rule.

  • Stephen Fewell

    An important distinction is the degree of harm a piece of writing can be perceived to do. Whilst no one would wish to compromise anyone’s right to express a reasoned opinion, Moir’s piece was a morass of disconnected speculations that encouraged the kind of ‘join the dots that aren’t really there’ thinking so beloved of the fearful and prejudiced. It also clearly sought to superceed clinical evidence with bus stop nudge-winkery, in a way that directly impacts on hundreds of people’s day to day lives.

    Her subsequent attempts to marginalise the scale of a reaction, both rational and heartfelt, from thousands of individuals by suggesting it is ‘orchestrated’ or ‘certain sections of the gay community’ follow a similar pattern.

    Mail readers I have spoken to may be voting with their purse, and no one wishes to be part of a mob, but at the same time when thinly veiled prejudice is peddled as acceptable in the same week that seemingly innocuous prejudice leads to a fatality, individuals will respond to try and intercede in other ways too.

    What one would really like is not to see Ms Moir sacked, but to see her reflect, and ideally apologise without qualification.

  • frozenwarnings

    Like Muir, you seem determined to ignore the unpleasantness and bile that was contained in that piece, and instead attack those who complain against the bigotry. There was nothing orchestrated about it. The day that Daily Mail readers, Guardian readers and Twitterers band together for anything will be the day the earth implodes. I don’t Twitter, or follow any Twitterers, or do Facebook, or read the Daily Mail unless some particularly dreadful journalism is flagged up to me. It might amaze you to know that there are people out there who can recognice bigotry, and want to complain about it without being coerced into it by Stephen Fry or anyone else. It’s not “mob rule”, and it’s totally different from the Brand/Ross affair, a fuss about very little, that was orchestrated to an extent by those with their own agenda re the BBC. Journalists need to stop patronising their audience by assuming they don’t know what they’re doing, and Moir needs to apologise profusely.

  • Cassandra Graham

    I didn’t complain about the article because Stephen Fry told me to. I complained about the article because it made me want to vomit, and I’m still mad just thinking about it. Every paragraph just kept getting worse and worse! It offended me most as a journalist (with a degree, not just self-proclaimed because I have a blog) that someone would (with so little skill I might add) so abuse the power and responsiblity they have.
    Also, the tone of this article, which mirrors a number I have seen showing up online from various ‘we’re the only real journalists’ sources, leaves me with a strong impression that old media is feeling distinctly nervous about their readership having any kind of power or influence and from the title-on-down came off as increadibly condecending.
    Might I add that the responses to Jan Moir and Carter-Ruck showed the Twitterverse as being quite ‘smart’ and effective and that the stupider and less informed ‘sachsgate’ was led by old media which seemed to be the one to have the ‘not so smart’ mob following them! The distinction here is that in this case the mob isn’t thinking what the newspapers tell them to think, and is acting and thinking on its own, and that’s got you all running scared.

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  • Ian Douglas

    Your example’s a bit skew-whiff. Ross-Brand was an example of big media (the Mail) encouraging protest against something, and social media (the Facebook groups) querying what the fuss was about. It;s the direct opposite of the Jan Moir affair.

  • MickGJ

    There are many levels to the accusation of “orchestration”. One seems to imply that if you weren’t an original witness to the outrage–is you had to attention drawn to it by someone else–then your complaint is not as valid as, say someone whose unwitting ears were offended by the original Brand/Ross broadcast. But surely that’s only the case if you are complaining about your own personal offence, and not the hurt of others.

    The second seems to be that this is actually nothing to do with the original piece “they haven’t even read it” but a vehicle for an interest group to build a platform. This certainly happens, viz. the form letters that regularly get emailed in over coverage of Israel, but people here seem to be expressing very personal outrage, and don’t on the whole seem to be gay.

    I read the piece was utterly disgusted by it, but never got around to commenting on the Mail site or complaining to the PCC. There must be thousands like me.

    Which brings me to the third level: the “orchestration” complaint suggests that the very volume of complaints in some way undermines their validity. In other words, it is possible to protest too much.

  • Linda Roulston

    As others have said, totally back to front. The Mail article was online, people heard about it, read it and reacted. The Ross/Brand debacle was orchestrated by the Mail as part of its anti-BBC agenda and involved complaints from people who had no idea what the tone of the broadcast had been, but reacted after being told they were offended. I’m not part of a ‘mob’, I’m a journalist of more than 30 years’ experience who found the article repellent and inaccurate, and responded accordingly.

  • Robert Hutchinson

    The central argument about the virtual mob is illogical. Should people avoid protest in case the protest grows too big? No, people protest when they believe it is right to protest and the bigger the protest grows the stronger it is. A successful protest is not a mob.

  • lou

    I didn’t write to the PCC simply to join a baying mob. I wrote to them after reading Moir’s spiteful piece because I found it profound offensive (as a straight 30-something woman with no interest in boy bands). I know from having produced and commissioned documentaries for mainstream British media exactly how much power the media has in shaping what is and isn’t considered acceptable in terms of behaviour and values in our society. Reading Moir’s piece was like finding myself in an episode of ‘Life on Mars’ – I’m really proud that so many other people felt that the latent and overt homophobia and journalistic incompetence on display in this article were a problem worthy of complaint to the PCC.

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