The power, and politics, of Twitter

Everyone's favourite microblogging site has continued its evolution this week, as Twitter moved subtly into a mass grassroots campaigning tool. Move over breaking news, you were so Spring 2009, organic protest is where it's at now. First up was the Trafigura case, of which so much has been written, it's somewhat pointless to rehash completely what went on (Adam Tinworth has a nice, concise summary). In a nutshell, the Guardian were gagged on writing about reporting on a Parliamentary question concerning Trafigura and there actions surrounding the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast.

Once the Guardian wrote that they'd been gagged, Twitter (and plenty of blogs) quickly ensured it was one of the most discussed and written about topics online. The Streisand effect, if you will.

Much has been said about how Twitter brought about the downfall of Carter-Ruck's gagging order. For what it's worth, I suspect it would have been lifted eventually - you simply can't stop papers reporting on the democratic business of Parliament just because it damages your client's reputation. That would abolish hundreds of years of precedent. There's a fair bit of that around.

For me, that's the most important aspect, more so, even, than Twitter's role in all this. The very fact a law firm thought it could ride roughshod over a basic right that's essential to any functioning democracy is somewhat concerning. It would have set a very dangerous precedent, and it's good to see, for ones, MPs from all parties standing up pretty strongly against this. This would have been a step too far.

What Twitter definitely did was to accelerate the process. Carter-Ruck may not have backed down so quickly were it not for Twitter, and it's unlikely that it would have spread onto more news outlets, and the original root of the litigation wouldn't have been dug up. In all honesty, can anybody recall Trafigura's name before this?

As Adam says, it was crowdsourced journalism at its finest.

The second was Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir's rather sickening piece on the death of Stephen Gately (no, I'm not going to link to it), which again hit the trending topics as Twitter users flocked to express their disgust. Again, this became, and maintained its place, as a trending topic on Twitter throughout the day.

This was somewhat different from the Trafigura campaign in some respects - it was more about decency than an affront to democracy. Nevertheless, the strength of feeling was enough to crash the Press Complaints Commission's website and cause advertisers to ask to be removed from Moir's article on the Mail's site.

There has been a lot written about Stephen Gately's death, some of it probably untrue, and some of it not overly pleasant. But it was this one article that ignited Twitter's fury. It could have ben written by any writer in any national paper - the result would have probably been the same.

The Moir case really shows the power of Twitter. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at how many complaints the Mail gets each day. It's incredibly rare for them to issue a statement around a complaint so quickly though (in an episode that contains just a touch of schadenfreude).

The difference, I think (and this is only hypotheticals), is that Carter-Ruck's injunction would have been overturned sooner or later. This isn't to say Twitter didn't help, but it was a key player rather than an essential in getting it lifted. With Moir, the statement would never have been issued were it not for Twitter.

Moir also grasps the wrong end of the stick with her statement by describing it as "clearly a heavily-orchestrated online campaign". Wrong. A heavily-orchestrated one implies a degree of organisation, whereas the reaction to her piece was spontaneous. It was the strength of feeling towards Moir's article rather than a grassroots piece of action from, say, a gay rights group. It's difficult to think something would trend so quickly and stay trending by organisation alone. It needs other Twitter users to keep talking about it long after it first moves towards trending.

And it's also why I can't see an organised campaign working as well as the Moir campaign. There's only so far you can tap into the internet before it falls away, a victim of natural information turnover.

A quick note on the politics of Twitter as well. Somebody (I can't remember who) noted that the two major Twitter campaigns were predominantly on liberal topics.

Is Twitter a liberal haven? I'm not so sure. To me it feels liberal, but that's because of the people I follow. That doesn't mean there's not a large conservative following on there.

Secondly, it's worth pointing out that Trafigura transcended political divides. Having heavyweight and idiologically different bloggers like Guido Fawkes and Chicken Yoghurt lending their support it somewhat like the suspension of cold war, in online terms. The only internet community recognised the chilling threat of the super-injunction for what it was: an affront to democracy. That does not necessarily make it liberal.

The Moir reaction leans towards a traditional cause of the left, or liberals, but you don't have to belong to that part of the political spectrum to be appalled by her views on Stephen Gately. It, perhaps, shows how we as a society have become more liberal and tolerant, but it isn't quite a cause championed entirely my liberals.

For me, Twitter comes across as more libertarian than liberal, and there is a crucial difference in this. It's quick to stand up for freedom in all sense of the word, but also leans away from censorship. It certainly isn't an area where one spectrum of politics dominates though.