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Summary:

Even after a string of revolting revelations, the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s scandal-plagued British tabloid, the News of the World, has come as a major surprise. But the social media bandwagon is already claiming — wrongly — that it should be seen as a victory for Twitter.

rupert-murdoch

These are fairly shocking times to be British. A nation known for being sedate and unstoppably polite has been jolted into righteous fury by a series of revelations — namely that the infamously scurrilous tabloid newspaper the News of the World had illegally listened to voicemails belonging to, well, almost anyone they could find: murder victims, families of murder victims, those involved in terrorist attacks and those whose relatives died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even though there was increasing pressure on the News of the World, pressure which gathered steam this week as more allegations came to light, it’s fair to say that everyone — the media industry, the business world and the British public alike — was stunned when James Murdoch, son of Rupert, announced today that his response was to close down the newspaper entirely.

What was less surprising, perhaps, is that the Twitter corps immediately went into overdrive to claim this “victory” as its own. Almost immediately, social media outlets were full of people trotting out the line that they had been a part, including this piece on Wired’s UK website titled “It was Twitter wot closed it”:

A huge hate campaign against the newspaper brewed on Twitter, with messages such as “campaigning for Sarah’s Law, while hacking into missing child’s phone & giving family false hope. #notw” being heavily retweeted along with calls for editor-at-the-time Rebekah Brooks’ resignation.

Really? Is that what things have come to? This is the kind of glib, self-serving tripe that makes me mad — and it’s the sort of crying-wolf moment that means people think anyone online is smug and self-obsessed. But it really makes me mad because it’s wrong on so many levels.

Twitter is no match for the local pub

Twitter’s fury was just a tiny sampling of a public anger that was far, far greater than it’s possible to put down in words. If you went anywhere in Britain over the last few days, it was simply impossible to ignore this story and the fallout. The indignation and disgust was everywhere — not just in the self-referential world of social media. It wasn’t just water cooler conversation. It was the only conversation.

Yesterday, for example, I was working in a London pub: a dirty, smelly, hoary old man’s boozer, the kind of place where you’re more likely to catch a disease as find a quality drink. I think it’s fair to assume that none of the four elderly, toothless and alcohol-soaked clientele were Twitter fanatics. Instead of poking away at their smartphones, they were watching TV. And what were they watching? An emergency parliamentary debate in which politicians were breathing hellfire about the News of the World’s behavior. These men were, it seems, readers of the News of the World — and they were turning their back on it.

That revolt by ordinary readers (mostly non-Twitter users), in turn, fed a commercial boycott. The Murdochs were able to ignore building public anger until the News of the World’s advertisers tuned into the public mood and decided to boycott the title — and it is that commercial pressure that made things happen. That’s the real stuff that made the Murdochs take notice.

Print journalists did the digging

Second, it was not Twitter that brought these revelations into the public sphere: it was the tireless work of a group of individuals led, for the most part by Nick Davies, an investigative reporter at the Guardian. Now, you can take this with a pinch of salt, because I was a reporter at the Guardian myself for years, but I think the dogged reporting by Davies and others over the last two years is what has kept this story going. At points the police, the politicians, the public and the rest of the media seemed happier to let it disappear. But in the end, Davies’ work — which was aided at important points by a small group of politicians who used their powers for good — was the block on which the News of the World’s head rested.

What does “killed” really mean, anyway?

Third, we are not even sure that the axe coming down will actually be the end of anything. There is already plenty of concern that this is a smokescreen, or a simple commercial decision. Although the News of the World is the title at the center of this storm, the problems do not stop there. Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the paper, is now one of Rupert Murdoch’s most senior executives, and right now she shows no signs of resigning. The other Murdoch tabloid she edited, the Sun, seems likely to take over the News of the World’s position on the news stand by publishing an extra edition — and it’s a paper that has shared both a staff and an ideology with the News of the World over generations. Then there’s Prime Minister David Cameron — such a close ally of Brooks that he spends the holidays with her and hired her disgraced understudy as his press chief.

If social media killed the News of the World, why won’t it simply carry on its rampage and take down the man in charge of the British government? I think we all know the answer to that question.

Yes, social media has played a role in some significant world events recently. But the rush to attribute every event to Twitter or Facebook shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the world, and what technology can do. The fact is that social media is simply people having conversations — and that saying Twitter or Facebook or social media brought down the News of the World is like saying the alphabet did it.

In the end, it’s simple: the truth killed the News of the World, and right now we don’t even know exactly what the whole truth is.

  1. You couldn’t be more correct in pointing out that there has been a trend to associate any “change” with social media, and all that’s needed is that topic making it to the trending ones.
    Perhaps it’s important to note that Twitter and Facebook may be catalysts to something but not necessarily result in the reason that a “change” happens. In this case, however, you mentioned how the advertisers tuned into the public mood, and their boycott of NOTW was what applied pressure. What are your thoughts on the idea that a build-up of this public mood and even perceiving it would not have been possible in say the 1990s, when everyone would have been disappointed but would have been able to talk about it only with friends and colleagues? So, no viral effect!

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    1. Bobbie Johnson Friday, July 8, 2011

      Thanks Kartik, great comment — but I think there are a couple of things here to wonder about.

      First, I think it is not entirely accurate to think that the reason the Murdochs are closing the News of the World is because of a commercial boycott. There are other reasons — political, commercial, legal and so on — which were almost certainly taken into consideration.

      Second, you’re right — Twitter definitely played a role, as it does in these moments, by pushing information to people that helps build up a head of steam. But remember, it’s only Twitter users. There are six million registered Twitter accounts in Britain. That’s about the same as the readership of the News of the World itself, though only a small proportion of them are active, and only a small proportion of *those* would have acted in any direct fashion to capture the notice of the advertisers.

      At the same time, the story was running on the TV, radio, the press (or at least parts of it), and people were talking about it over telephones, email, in conversations in homes and in the street… people expressed disgust in almost every conceivable channel of human communication. Twitter is a part of that, but not, I think, a defining part.

      Last, boycotts are not always effective, but they have happened in the past without a lightning rod such as Twitter. Take, for example, The Sun’s atrocious coverage of Hillsborough in the wake of the disaster: it’s 22 years since Liverpool fans boycotted the paper as a result, but sales in Merseyside are still significantly affected.

      Twitter played a role, and to deny that would be silly. That’s part of its strength: it makes a certain kind of sharing information, to a certain group of people, very easy. I used it to follow this story, and at times it was an important part of fuelling the anger about what the News of the World had done.

      But at the same time, there is room for nuance. It is wrong to imagine that Twitter was the defining element in helping this story unfold, rather than being part of a wider sense of public outrage that was taking place.

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      1. Bobbie, that’s a great post, but I wonder what you think about the positive reinforcement Twitter provides the media and, by extension, the tens of millions of British citizens who are not into microblogging. It seems Twitter represents a sample large enough that the media and commercial interests take it seriously, even if it doesn’t include everyone. Kartik’s point makes sense to me – that this sort of backlash could not have gathered pace so visibly 20 years ago, meaning the advertisers would have been less likely to pull out, meaning the proprietor would have been less compelled to shut the paper down. It’s clearly facile to say “It’s Twitter What Won It”, but Twitter’s fingerprints are evident at every turn in the tumultuous past three days.

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  2. Bobbie Johnson Thursday, July 7, 2011

    Important point by @GreggCarter (on Twitter) that “Twitter allows proles like me to feel a part of it & important”. Which is, of course, true — but doesn’t mean that Twitter was directly responsible for anything, just that it gave some people an outlet.

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  3. “Yesterday, for example, I was working in a London pub: a dirty, smelly, hoary old man’s boozer, the kind of place where you’re more likely to catch a disease as find a quality drink. ”

    wrf? do you know anything about boozing? and if not, do you know anything about respect?

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  4. Kerry Gaffney Friday, July 8, 2011

    Excellent article. The self-righteous fury and smug self-congratulation is an example of slactivism at its finest.

    Karik – Surely the viral effect is people talking to friends and colleagues, who then in turn talk to different circles of friends, who then pass it on. Facebook & Twitter were potentially the catalyst for the actions of Murdoch this week as it helped the story gain, and keep momentum. It is entirely possible for public pressure to change things without the internet, takes woman’d suffrage as an example. Perhaps if twitter had existed back then it would have taken less time but it still happened through real life action of key people and the support of wider group.

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  5. Twitter didn’t ‘kill’ the News of the World. That’s a ludicrous, attention-seeking statement made by others. And yes, there’s no guarantee there’s been a permanent death in the NI family, but arguing over the use of the word ‘kill’ is a more a case of semantics to take up with other writers.

    But at no post in your post do you award a shred of credit to the role that Twitter did play in this week’s events. You appear to dismiss it altogether, seemingly on the basis that its users represent neither the majority of the mainstream public, nor the views of the average News of the World reader. And you’re absolutely right – they don’t – but I think that points is largely irrelevant.

    Your example of a working class boozer showing the parliamentary debate on Thursday. Why was there a debate, exactly? The story broke on Tuesday, not Thursday. What turned a story by the Guardian into a parliamentary debate that bar staff felt was of interest to patrons?

    Well, the media did that – and not just the Guardian. The Guardian is arguably as irrelevant in representing the views of the UK public as Twitter is, if not more so. Plenty of newsrooms picked up the story from the Guardian, but mainstream media also looks to Twitter for a straw poll of public opinion. It may provide a distorted or exaggerated representation of the national mood, but rightly or wrongly, Twitter plays a significant role in that respect. The number of irrelevant stories spun out of Twitter activity and provided oxygen by the Guardian and other outlets is staggering, but that’s where we are.

    “The Murdochs were able to ignore building public anger until the News of the World’s advertisers tuned into the public mood and decided to boycott the title — and it is that commercial pressure that made things happen.”

    Absolutely true. Where did that commercial pressure begin? Not from the boozer on Thursday, or even Wednesday.

    On Tuesday afternoon, when the story broke and nobody in the boozer cared much for a story they hadn’t heard about yet, the usual angry mob formed on Twitter calling for a boycott of the News of the World; it was pointless since Twitter users were unlikely to be representative of the readership.

    Some users realised that a boycott were doomed to fail, and that it made more sense to target advertisers. They took immediate action; within two hours (and I follow one of those involved, so I watched it happen), they’d built online tools that allowed every Twitter user to register individual complaints with individual advertisers, each with a single click. They created a mailing list of all the senior management at every company. By Tuesday evening, there weren’t hundreds, but thousands of individual tweets directed at dozens of advertisers, all of them public.

    The next day, the majority of stories about the Dowler hacking mentioned this campaign. And advertisers and their agencies who use Twitter actively pay attention to it just as closely as journalists. They’ll let a handful of grumbles wash over them but they’ll get nervous when they see hundreds of complaints.

    Advertisers began issuing statements of their own accord, some were forced to by journalists who’d picked up on the activity. New quotes meant fresh content injected into the relentless news cycle, creating a new angle to a day-old story. Ford, perhaps recognising that not spending money on Sunday would result in blanket coverage everywhere else, pulled their advertising with the News of the World. Even if they were already considering doing so the day before, waking up to a blizzard of phone calls from marketing agencies going into meltdown will have played a part. By Wednesday afternoon, the actions of advertisers was a story in its own right.

    So yes, I’d absolutely agree that the public mood did dictate the actions of the advertisers, but the role of Twitter in influencing those advertisers and those who reported the story should be acknowledged. While you were in the pub forming your opinions on how the mood of the public dictated the decisions of advertisers, those advertisers had already been acutely aware of that mood for nearly two full days, and the press had already been leading the speculation for a day.

    Once the truth was unearthed by such commendable journalism, it wasn’t the concerns of advertisers that bothered those in Parliament. Many factors contributed to its demise, not least Murdoch’s genius stroke of sacrificing a profitable but diseased paper that would earn less in the long term, than an acquisition that would be threatened by attempting to support the paper. So while Twitter certainly didn’t kill the News of the World, I think it dealt it a sound punch to the balls.

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    1. Bobbie Johnson Sunday, July 10, 2011

      Paul, thanks for the comment — I’m glad you got to write them down here and not just in our Twitter conversation.

      Having gone over your thoughts a few times, I’m really not sure that you’re disagreeing with me at all. Twitter, in this case, was part of a range of tools and venues in which the public mood became apparent (sometimes it is a bit of a social bubble, but in this case the crime was so obviously heinous that it was bang on) but all I argued was that it was not the definitive factor in bringing about closure of the News of the World. It was not “Twitter wot won it”.

      Perhaps, then, the problem is your desire to get a “shred of credit”. That’s my error, I think, because I was trying to engage directly with a misapprehension before it bubbled out of control. But in cases like this I think I’d prefer to give credit to the people, rather than the tools: “Twitter users helped protest against the News of the World” rather than “Twitter helped kill a newspaper”.

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