Comment: Raw nerves and healthy debate over the new ‘Twitter mob’

It is good to be a pioneer and start a healthy debate. I did just that with my article on the ‘smart and not so smart mob’ all of two weeks ago.

That short opinion piece focused on the row over Jan Moir and her Daily Mail article on the death of Stephen Gately and the subsequent mass complaints (over 22,000) to the Press Complaints Commission.

It hit a nerve. A raw nerve in the case of Suw Charman Anderson who accused me of just ‘not getting the point’ of swift internet social movements. The piece was categorised ‘Fuckwittery’. No bias there then. The followers on her blog echoed her sentiments.

But then others joined in: Stephen Glover in his weekly column on the media in the Independent on October 25 talked of hate in the blogosphere and whether it was a good or bad thing. His view was the latter. His conclusion? ‘The Jan Moir case would seem to show the internet, which is supposed by many to enhance pluralism and democracy, being used by some outraged members of a lobby to challenge the traditional right of free speech’.

Fellow hack  Joanne Geary weighed in three days later with an intelligent and measured piece in her blog about her disquiet on online protests. Her piece was thoughtful and thought-provoking and has elicited some very sympathetic responses and comments. No wonder Roy Greenslade describes her as  ‘that most enterprising of newspaper bloggers’. Read that debate. It is measured and rational and open.

More nationals were not far behind, Jon Henley in the Guardian with ‘The power of Tweets’ (October 31) about the new mob from which the paper had reaped much benefit in the Trafigura case; a Stephen Armstrong piece in the Sunday Times, ‘An online mob. On the internet retribution is swift’ (November 1). The great Nick Cohen joined the discussion in the Observer. The debate was and is out there.

But will the Twitterati ultimately eat themselves? At the weekend, the best known of them all, Stephen Fry, announced he was quitting Twitter after being insulted by a fellow Twitterer, then got on a plane to Los Angeles.

As he was airbound, the cyber-storm (he has close to a million followers on Twitter) erupted over his head pleading with him to rescind. The crowd cried for him to come back to Twitterland. He did from LAX.

Let the online debate continue.

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He is a former BBC, ITV and Channel Four producer. He is the incoming chair of the Institute of Communication Ethics.

11 thoughts on “Comment: Raw nerves and healthy debate over the new ‘Twitter mob’

  1. Terence Eden

    I’m slightly confused. What’s the difference between a mob whipped up on twitter and a mob whipped up by the Daily Mail?

    I see no difference between the Mail’s hounding of Ross & Brand and the hounding of Jan Moir. Well, there is one difference – one was an orchestrated campaign by an organisation which sees profit in the destruction of a media rival – the other was organic. Can you tell which was which?

    While I don’t like mob rule, I’d rather it was genuine than manipulated.


  2. Rachel

    I’ve just left this comment at Joanne Geary’s blog.

    *Sigh* I am a bit fed up with this being spun as a mob’, or an anti-free-speech thing. It’s simply not accurate. I’m particularly sick of people in the MSM saying this sort of thing (as Joanne Geary has just done):

    ‘The appearance of collective action is remarkably easy online, with many individuals able to contribute in small ways (a retweet, joining a Facebook group, writing a short blog post). But this also means responsibility for this action is fragmented…’

    Twitter was just one part of this. Please look at the facts.

    25,000 people *complained to the PCC*.

    Some of them were alerted by Twitter, others alerted by Facebook status updates expressing horror at the article from FB friends, others read the article at source and googled ”how to complain about an article”.

    They bothered to complain to the PCC because – and this is significant – they thought that Moir’s article had breached the PCC’s Editor’s Code which the Mail has voluntarily signed up to and agreed to abide by. What is the point of having a code is it is breached and ignored? Why is this, as some MSM commentators have tried to say ‘an attack on free speech’? Is a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority an attack on free speech? Is a complaint to OfCom an attack on free speech? So why is this, please?

    What else are people to do if they think an article has breached the Code – in regard to accuracy, intrusion and discrimination? The Mail has no reader’s editor to direct concern to and answer complaints in public; writing to the Mail gets you an automatically generated email, as does writing to Dacre, as does writing to Moir. So people wrote to the PCC to complain, as they are properly supposed to do – and then they soon found out it is a toothless body, and Paul Dacre sits on the PCC standards committee!

    What else to do? Using their initiative, people also began to contact the advertisers on the page, all of whom were easy enough to look up contact details for – and spoke to their press officers and media buying departments and said, look, do you really want your brand next to this kind of homophobic content? How do I know this? Because I was doing it by 9.40am the day the article came out and so were my friends. Via a message board as it happens, none of us are on Twitter.

    And the advertisers thanked us for alerting them, and took immediate steps, after having read Moir’s piece, to get their ads away from the foul piece. I know this because I personally spoke to P&G, M&S, and Nestle the morning Moir’s piece came out. Then I complained to the PCC and joined a Facebook group where people where sharing advertiser info and explaining how to complain to each other as well as discussing the article. That group now has almost 40,000 members by the way. .

    To complain to the PCC you have to give your name, address and contact details and fill out a lengthy form explaining – with quotes and links – exactly where the article has breached the PCC’s Code.

    So you have to read both the Code – which is several hundred words – and the article again – which is also several hundred words – and then go to the bother of filling in the form, with your real name and details – in order to make a complaint.

    That is not anonymous.
    That is not mindless, or quick, or easy.
    That is not a ‘mob’.
    Nor is it an attack on free speech.

    Nor did anyone turn up outside Moir’s house with pitchforks, ffs.

    It makes me really, really angry to see this canard being wheeled about in the MSM – that complaint is just a click away, that the article wasn’t even read properly, that it’s easy to complain but hard to take responsibility, that it was orchestrated, that it was organised, that it was a ‘lobby’. Bollocks.

    Go and look at the form for yourselves if you want. Go and look at how much of a hassle the process is.

    And just to prove the point, traffic to the Moir page went up 22%. The idea that people just leapt anonymously on a bandwagon and formed an anonymous mob is stupid, and wrong, and misrepresentative.

    I’m not particularly having a go at Joanne Geary, but my goodness, after a week of pontificating from the MSM commentators who aer wheeling out this canard about attacking free speech/angry mobs/didn’t read the article/instant outrage *without bothering to check the facts*, I am really fed up. You still don’t get it, a lot of you.

  3. Martin Cloake

    I picked up on much the same thing on my own blog John, and I referenced your article, which I thought raised some interesting questions. I also thought it was quite brave to lay open what were described as your “biases” but which seemed to be simply honest expressions.

    I wouldn’t go as far as some of your or Stephen Glover’s comments, but many people – including my journalism students – have found the debate over this whole issue productive. And surely that’s the point – the internet allows us to have conversations and think aloud, rather than presenting every word as sacred script.

    I find it rather ironic that some of the people who like to present themselves as the foremost ‘experts’ on ‘new media’ seem not to understand this, and give the impression that they relish the opportunity to hammer those who don’t agree with their every word in the most ill-measured terms. I think Joanna Geary is right when she talks about examining “the implications of online collective action”. And Rachel, while I take on board much of what you say, it’s really not good enough to use the “you just don’t get it” argument – it so often seems to translate as “you just don’t see things the way I do”.

  4. Rachel

    ‘And Rachel, while I take on board much of what you say, it’s really not good enough to use the “you just don’t get it” argument – it so often seems to translate as “you just don’t see things the way I do”.

    Fortunately in this case I actually made the arguments first, before pointing out why certain people ‘just don’t get it’ – i.e ignoring the arguments. As they ‘so often do.’

  5. Martin Cloake

    [sigh] I read your arguments. I understand and agree with some of what you say. But I took issue with your conclusion that John and other commentators “just don’t get it”. That suggests they don’t understand what they are talking about. I am arguing that they do understand, they just reached a different conclusion. It’s nothing to fall out over.

  6. Rachel

    Here’s an example of someone who just doesn’t get it: Stephen Glover.

    ‘The Jan Moir case would seem to show the internet, which is supposed by many to enhance pluralism and democracy, being used by some outraged members of a lobby to challenge the traditional right of free speech’.

    1. What’s not ‘pluralistic’ about a large number of people responding to an online article, using online tools, when those people access it at source, or are directed to it by friends/contacts?
    2. What’s not ‘democratic’ about people responding with their opinion?
    3. What ‘lobby’ are these people supposed to be ‘outraged members of’? The Twitter ‘lobby’? The Facebook ‘lobby’? The Daily Mail Online reading ‘lobby’? The gay ‘lobby’? The liberal ‘lobby’? The ‘knew someone who died of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome’ ‘lobby’? Who organised the lobby? What a catastrophically [wilfully?] ignorant misreading of the situation.
    4. How is complaining to the PCC an attack on the right of free speech? If anyone writing in the press can say anything, and must never be challenged, no matter how misleading, inaccurate, hateful, discriminatory or intrusive, then why, pray, have a PCC Editor’s Code and a means of complaining to the PCC?

    Glover, writing that, quite obviously does not undrstand – being charitable – or he does understand and is choosing to misrepresent what happened in a snide and misleading way. In which case, I am exercising my right of free speech to point out that what he is saying is incorrect and cannot be justified by any rational reading of the facts.

    Then we have John Mair last week, making similar remarks. saying that ‘the blogosphere’ ‘went mad’ ‘seeking revenge’.

    So it’s ‘blogs’ now, not Mail readers, not twitterers, not facebook users, all of whom are actually just ‘people’ irrespective of the medium they are using to communicate.

    And ‘went mad’? What is this supposed to mean? 25,000 people painstakingly filling in a form as described above, that’s going mad? Complaining is ‘seeking revenge’? Discussing homophobia is vengeance? Joining a Facebook group or a discussion, typing out your reaction or mailing a friend, are we not allowed to do that? It reeks of being patronising, I’m afraid – how dare these little people think they have the right to challenge a professional journalist! What a nasty mob they all are!

    It is hard not to conclude that the old guard don’t like it up and at ’em, and expect to opine away from the mountaintops unchallenged by those without national opinion column gigs of their own, that the PCC is a joke and the cosy club sees ordinary people daring to raise an objection as the barbarians at the gates.

    could this be that so much genuinely insightful, provocative, interesting, informed comment is produced for free, and the Emperor has just been found to be naked?

    is that what is really behind all this harrumphing that ‘the mob’ are ‘a threat to free speech’? They look more like a threat to paid speech to me.

    And those paid to dish it out are pretty damn worried.

  7. Martin Cloake

    Rachel, It’s an example of someone who has a different point of view. I don’t agree with much of what Stephen Glover says there, and it seems pointless for me to try to justify someone else’s thought process.

    The concerns about free speech and commercial pressures raised by me, among others, are genuine attempts to raise debate. Joanna Geary’s piece, as John pointed out, is a very good example of a measured raising of the question.

    You seem to have decided that the “old guard” of “traditional journalists” are outraged that someone has challenged one of their number. I think you’re wrong. Some traditional journalists are engaging with the new landscape, some aren’t. What most people are doing is working out the rules of the new landscape. There are arguments, debates, disagreements. If anyone is trying to maintain a distinction between a ‘professional’ elite and the rest, they will also find they are wrong. There is no grand conspiracy against the “little people” here.

  8. Woodrow Phoenix

    What these newspaper articles show very clearly is the limitations of the standard journalistic approach of nicknaming a trend and flattening it into a soundbite. There is no such thing as the ‘Twitterati’. Hundreds of thousands of people who have little else in common use Twitter on an individual person to person level. The ease and immediacy of Twitter’s info stream means that occasionally when they all find some points of commonality, they can all act on it at the same time.

    It is a best insulting and at worst completely, outrageously misrepresenting how the internet works to call this a “mob” or a “lobby”. Thousands of people who did not like what Jan Moir wrote were shown how to voice their disapproval and many of them did. They were not challenging Jan Moir’s right to free speech. They were saying that she should be held accountable for what she chooses to write.

    The general air of shock and discomfort among journalists at the sheer number of people who wrote to the PCC may be a very good example of how out of touch the newspaper industry is. But hey, look on the bright side; if nobody cared what newspapers wrote then none of you would have jobs.

  9. Pingback: ‘Twitter mobs’ on the BBC Radio 4 Moral Maze | Editors' Blog

  10. Colston Vear

    @ Martin Clarke: There is no grand conspiracy against the “little people” here.

    What I do think is here though is a shift in power towards the “little people.” No longer do such people have to have access to the ‘media’ in order to have a right to reply.

  11. Martin Cloake

    @ Colston Vear I think the shift is power is a very good thing, but I don’t think it’s as new as some suggest. I’m old enough to remember punk fanzine Sniffin Glue, a whole wave of football fanzines and the fillip to independent, alternative publishing that dtp brought with it. It’s a long time since journalism has been the elite preserve it once was.

    What’s interesting about many of the ‘name’ journalists today is that they started out in DIY media. So access has been opening up for a while. The structural change is that participation in the media now doesn’t necessarily mean being a regular part of it. Which raises a bunch of interesting and challenging questions. This thread, and others such as the thread on Joanna Geary’s post, is pushing the discussion forward – with media being shaped by anyone who cares to contribute.

    Btw, it’s Cloake – Martin Clarke probably wouldn’t want to be mistaken for me 😉

Leave a Reply