John Walker's Electronic House

Twitter, The Daily Mail, And The Liberal Voices

by on Oct.16, 2009, under The Rest

Today’s explosive reaction to the Daily Mail’s crude and ignorant article about the death of Stephen Gately has once again demonstrated the extraordinary effect of Twitter and Facebook. An effect that will increasingly merit consideration.

Jan Moir’s spiteful piece (originally titled, “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”) combined that niggling thought that I would contend all must have had on hearing the news of the pop singer’s early death, “But surely something dodgy must have gone on for a 33 year old to just die?” with a second, insidiously unpleasant personal prejudice of hers, “I’ve never trusted those gays. And what they get up to.” An opinion that, of course, is speaking directly to the audience of the newspaper. The Daily Mail has, for the 114 years it’s existed, never been exactly offering a liberal slant on the news. It’s famously the paper that supported Hitler long after it began to seem perhaps a little inappropriate, and hasn’t really improved its attitudes since. The central thought to Moir’s piece, “I always knew those gays were up to no good, and look, it’s got another one of them killed,” addresses the potential homophobia in the paper’s readership. (Astonishingly his death manages to confirm to her that gay marriage is a sham, unlike the near 100% success rate enjoyed by heterosexual marriage.) She then takes this to a new depth by going on to heavily imply (well, even state) that there’s been a cover-up of the real reasons behind his death, and that those real reasons are bound to be something to do with penises and bottoms. (I’m not going to go through the piece picking it apart – that’s already been done splendidly by Charlie Brooker.)

It’s interesting that it’s taken this long for the internet to get involved. It seems that, despite social networking sites and instant messaging having been enormously popular for years, it’s only in the last few months that the critical mass has been such that it has spilled into all-permeating public consciousness. It’s taking a clumsy journey. News websites, both from television and newspapers, are increasingly making claims to portray public reaction to a news story by throwing in three or four tweets from random people that they’ve presumably sourced from a quick-n-dirty search of Twitter. This makes some degree of sense when it’s a story about something happening on Twitter (as was the case today with a Guardian story that happened to pick out a quote by my friend Martin), but is more often thrown in arbitrarily to stories where you’d really prefer that the site simply reported the news at you, rather than telling you what people you don’t know think if limited to 140 characters.

But with this validation comes uptake, and with uptake comes increased validation. Twitter (and Facebook, to some extent, with its ability to create campaign groups) have now become legion, hundreds of thousands of voices retweeting each other to create an unavoidable swell of opinion. It seems impossible to deny Twitter was in a large part responsible for Carter-Ruck backing down from attempts to stop the Guardian reporting on the Trafigura scandal, and now what was pretty standard affair for the Daily Mail – a gay-bashing piece of hate – has been hung out for all to see and be horrified by.

The Trafigura story is farther reaching in terms of its significance, I would argue. An attempt to use so-called “super-injunctions” to prevent newspapers reporting questions due to be asked in Parliament is staggering. The implications of this – that a court did grant such an injunction (does anyone know which judge agreed to this – it seems unavoidably to be Justice Eady, but I’ve not read that it was) is terrifying. And of course the terror digs deeper – Carter-Ruck make a lot of trips to court to garner these injunctions, and they are often granted with the additional ruling that no one may report that the injunction has been granted. It was, in fact, surprising that the Guardian were able to report that they were being prevented from reporting something. Most of these occur without anyone being able to report that they did. But the internet does something rather clever. It doesn’t care, and it doesn’t care on a really big, uncontrollable scale. Anonymous blogs with mysterious IPs print stories, and then they’re reproduced and reprinted and twittered by many thousands – it’s undeletable, and there’s no court in the world powerful enough to stop it. It’s exciting, anarchic. It’s extremely dangerous. I can’t wait to see what it does next.

The Twitter response to the Moir story, while mostly very positive today, does seem to have something more in common with a braying crowd of pitchfork-weilding angries. It seems to develop in three stages. First there’s the awareness raising phase. Here people tweet and retweet the link to the story, with their own comment of outrage. Then comes the reaction to phase one, in which people want to do something about it. Phase three is either setting fire to cars or encouraging others to join campaigns, sign petitions, and file complaints. In today’s case I fully sympathise with the rising voice of anger, and am delighted by the Mail’s need to pull advertising from the original story, the hasty change of headline, and the resulting negative press the hateful newspaper has received. (Although I’m also conscious that publicity is publicity, and it might not have hurt the Mail very meaningfully.) Most of all I’m delighted by the attitude behind the reaction. Even ten years ago I can’t imagine the mass opinion being one of exposing and decrying homophobia.

What interests me is how familiar the reactions are. I think the liberal thinkers, who seem more likely to be early adopters of technology, are now adopting the methods of the illiberal, but I don’t know if it’s subversion or unironic parody. Think about the response to paedophiles back in 2000. As the matter became the cause célèbre for the tabloid press, an undercurrent of mass thinking bubbled to the surface, leading the Sun/News Of The World to publish (inaccurate) photographs and home addresses of convicted child molesters, resulting in literal mobs of torch-wielding vigilantes setting fire to people’s houses and harassing paediatricians. It was grotesque, but it was powerful. These people were motivated. They were organised. They got stuff done. Insane, deranged stuff, but they got it done.

I think Twitter offers the liberal an opportunity for a slightly more civilised braying mob. By the very nature of the non-tabloid press it rarely attempts to get its readership wound up to the point of doing something about anything. The Independent may feebly complain on its front pages about significant issues, but it’s hardly orchestrating marches on Downing Street. The Guardian, who this week have gained a lot of kudos, are equally capable of printing absolute ignorant bilge, as was becoming a more frequent reputation until the Trafigura story. And the Times and the Telegraph are much more interested in helping the comfortable middle classes to remain comfortable and titillated. It’s not until the advent of Twitter that these liberal stories gain attention and traction in a wider consciousness.

Twitter’s had a few lovely achievements. The petition to see Gordon Brown formerly apologise to the late Alan Turing would never have happened without it. The subverting of Daily Mail polls may be absolutely pointless, but it’s still extremely funny to see the paper proclaiming that the extreme majority of its readers have voted in favour of gypsies receiving government benefits. And watching the wretched Carter-Ruck capitulate was a genuine pleasure.

Of course the reactions about what to do about something are not exactly sophisticated. I think there will be misfires to come. I’m not convinced that the Jan Moir incident won’t become one. Much as Fox News in America is currently thriving because of liberal cable television picking on it, papers like the Mail will only get stronger and more determined in the face of an effective enemy. They’ve been hating gay people in their pages for over a hundred years – hating gay people when lots of people get pissed off is so much more rewarding to them. It allows them, and their millions of readers, to feel like a victim. Jan Moir will represent herself tomorrow, and indeed forever more, as the victim of mass bullying. She’s already issued a ludicrous statement in which she described today’s reaction as “heavily orchestrated”. A very clever word to use. There was nothing orchestrated about it – lots of people saw a terrible thing and reacted to it, and some of those people have hundreds of thousands of followers. Hundreds of thousands of people being angry with you at once. Perfect for Moir. These “orchestrated” bullies misrepresented her, and after all, she was only saying what the readers were thinking, eh readers? Eh? (Her response is pretty extraordinary. She quite astonishingly fails to understand why people are so angry, proudly reiterating the same homophobic points while blustering in shock and confusion as to why she might be thought of as homophobic. Also, it’s remarkable that she defends her piece by restating what she believes to be her central points – that they invited someone in for sex, that they took many drugs, and that it was his wild lifestyle that was implicit in his death – as established facts. Despite each of these claims being things she supposes and invents, in the face of contrary evidence or no evidence at all, in the original piece.)

The only real downside to today was the “solution” offered by the loudest voices, such as Stephen Fry and Derren Brown. Both encouraged people to complain to the Press Complaints Commission to point out how the article violated their code. This led to the PCC website collapsing under weight of traffic, but not before 800 or so complaints had been made. (Again, this makes for an interesting subversion/parody of one of the favourite moves of the tabloid press – the organised complaining to official bodies.) But this was the most futile of futile responses. The PCC is a toothless ineffective organisation that frequently fails to offer any useful regulation to the industry. And this is no surprise when you realise that it’s essentially self-governing – it’s rules are defined by the people who run the newspapers. And the chairman of the PCC’s Code Of Practise Committee is Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail. It demonstrates the giant flaw in a communication system that’s limited to 140 characters and is primarily comprised of people reposting what someone more famous just said – unsophisticated and unhelpful reactions can easily take rule. The liberals have a new voice, made up of many parts, but they need to be very careful what it says. How far is the frothing Twitter mass from confusedly chasing Jay Mohr out of his house and town?

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14 Comments for this entry

  • Robert Morgan

    “I’m amazed that this isn’t being more widely reported, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission is one Paul Dacre. The editor of the Daily Mail.”

    Who told you that?

    Score one for the press: it’s not more widely reported because it’s not true. The PCC is chaired by Baroness Buscombe.

    Dacre is chairman of the Press Complaints Commission’s “Editors’ Code of Practice Committee”. This is a committee of editors who effectively self-regulate their Code of Practice. All very toothless, sure, but it’s hardly surprising this committee is chaired by a newspaper editor.

  • John Walker

    Cheers Robert – fixed. And it, of course, remains very significant.

    Just one clarification. It’s not the “Editors’ Code of Practice Committee” but the “Code of Practice Committee”. A group of editors define the PCC’s overall rules.

    My error also raises another entertaining Twitter thought. My stating earlier that he was chairman, rather than chairman of the committee that defines their own rules, was retweeted by an MP to her large number of followers. People in power trusting the statements made by nobodies with no political education is a troubling thought.

  • Robert Morgan

    No problem. And it’s “Practice”.

    Nice post, though. I agree that it’s interesting watching the mobs change places. Reminds me of the Anti-Nazi League.

    I think we should wait to see what the PCC does next. As I understand it, Dacre chaired the committee that wrote the Code that his paper has broken. That Code seems good enough for our purposes.

    And it’s going to be a hard one to rule on. I’ve found the day as offensive and gleeful as you have, but objectively, the formal crimes of the piece are not huge. It’s nothing on the Dunblane thing, for instance. So if their power were unlimited, what would be a proper sanction? Suspend Moir, Ross-style, I’d say. That’s about right.

  • John Walker

    I think the Mail should be forced to find a reason to write about how horrible her piece was every day for two months, with ever more spurious headlines, and then every time anything vaguely similar happens they should be required to once again mention it at length.

    That seems fitting.

  • Robert Morgan

    It’s “Editors” here:

    Since we’re chatting in this slightly awkward place, a question. You talk of the “niggling thought that I would contend all must have had on hearing the news of the pop singer’s early death, “But surely something dodgy must have gone on for a 33 year old to just die?””

    This seems to be a view that many have, that something was up with the story from the beginning. But I didn’t have that thought because I was simply hanging on. I thought it was always like this. As with Heath Ledger, say, first you hear that he died in his sleep then the next day, you get the details: it was a drug overdose.

    You don’t need to treat the first account with *suspicion*, that’s just how the news arrives. With Gately, the next day the Coroner said it really was natural causes. So I thought that was surprising and unlucky, but nothing ever niggled.

    I’m aware that people were reacting with “oh please” right from the start with Gately, so what was different this time?

  • John Walker

    My reaction was the same as the Ledger story. It was, “Sure, sure, what will we find out next?” Which I think was similar to yours.

    I think the difference this time was that there *wasn’t* a next. Everyone waited to find out why Ledger really died, and then it turns out drugs. Everyone was waiting to find out why Gately really died, and then it turned out, he just did. Which I think means people say, “Oh, we’re not finding out today then. Maybe tomorrow.” And so the cynical speculation continues.

    I should add, I am giving it more thought now than I have since he died. I wasn’t sure who he was when his death was announced, and I faintly recognise him in photos. I don’t really care how he died. It was the “natural causes” that caught my attention, because it sounded like the thing that’s normally said when something else happened.

    I think that’s it. I think because every celebrity death is first said to be natural causes and then turns out to be something far more juicy, the term has come to mean “something juicy you don’t know yet.” So people are still waiting on the Gately story.

  • Robert Morgan

    Yes, and as with Princess Diana, the press and much of the public can’t process the random accidental death of a celebrity. A celebrity must have a death commensurate with their celebrity. Not just some bad chance.

  • John Walker

    I think we should institute this. Celebrities, by law, must have appropriately attention-deserving demises. And if they don’t, we get to put their corpse in a helicopter and fly it into a mountain, and pretend that’s how they really died.

  • Blissett

    Really good post John, covering many of the questions and concerns that were going through my head yesterday.

    I think the two most interesting questions looking to the future of Twitter activism are:

    a) Is there a significant but currently dormant right-wing minority on Twitter just waiting for their own issue to galvanise around? If so, what kind of issue might light the fuse and how will the existing Liberal majority respond? If not, how long will it take for the right-wing to “get” and co-opt the power of Twitter.

    b) All the wonderful examples of Twitter activism in recent months have been very simplistic, black or white issues for anyone of even a vaguely leftist bent. What will happen when a more complex topic arises and a plurality of opinions are fighting for trend space? Will Twitter prove to be so powerful then, or will it turn out to be no more than a very blunt instrument?

    Oh, one final thought. It seems interesting to me that the most potent political activism in this country right now is coming from the Left (the contrast with the US couldn’t be clearer). We could be just months away from a change of Government and the return of the right-wing to power after a long time in the wilderness. Twitter could be maturing as a campaigning platform just at the point that it’s seemingly natural constituency moves into opposition. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s use changes during that transition.

  • Freudian Trip

    To use a newspaper trick and randomly quote twitter; @danielmaier: Twitter = wonderful liberal weapon but sometimes I think its logo should be a pitchfork silhouetted by flaming torchlight.

  • Dean

    I think there’s something interesting going on here. Because the left have always been strong online, look at the likes of communities like No2ID etc. But the thing with Twitter is that, right now, journos and other media types are utterly enamored with it. Had this same thing happened exclusively on Facebook or Myspace, then one or two news outlets might have picked it up as in interesting curio.

    But with Twitter, it’s so beloved by the media types that an outraged reaction there is given a disproportionate amount of significance. It’s brilliant, but I fear it won’t last once the Twitter fad passes and the next big social networking tool is less conducive to this sort of thing.

  • John Walker

    I think it’s really important not to view this as a left/right thing. Never mind that I’m no longer sure those terms have meaning, but I’d suggest most Conservatives were outraged by Moir’s column. To be right-wing is not to be homophobic. That’s a preposterous position. Ask the vast numbers of gay Tories, for a start.

    It’s about a liberal/illiberal divide. What’s so interesting is watching the liberals adopt the tactics of the illiberals. That might not be a bad thing – as I say above, the illiberals get shit done. Crazy awful shit, but it gets done.

    I’m just wanting this adoption to be noticed, and kept in check. Will there come a point where we start setting up binary polls demanding that people vote to agree that foreign people shouldn’t be rounded up and shot in the face?

    There’s a second half to this whole conversation about the anti-war marches a few years ago, and what a hideous, HIDEOUS mess that was, with people marching against a war under seas of anti-Semitic signs and banners. But that’s for another time.

  • TeeJay

    @Blissett “…the most potent political activism in this country right now is coming from the Left (the contrast with the US couldn’t be clearer). We could be just months away from a change of Government and the return of the right-wing to power after a long time in the wilderness…”

    ‘liberal’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘left’ (in the typical tax-and-spend sense) and the impending replacement of Labour by Conservative isn’t necessarily a ‘shift to the right’: it’s the replacement of one ‘centre’ by another ‘centre’, mainly because people have got sick of the last lot, not due to any large political shift. Also the actual ‘swing’ could well simply amount to a couple of million voters not bothering to turn up and vote. A lot of topical issues don’t break down easily into ‘left-versus-right’.

  • Dean

    I guess I was using ‘left’ as short-hand for liberal… be interested to here your thoughts on the anti-war marches.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks for this entry

  • The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

    […] Moir’s Guardian column is well worth reading. Away from that though, our own John Walker is a little disturbed by the whole thing in a subtly different way. I’m still thinking about what I make of his position, to be honest. I’m not entirely […]

  • One Man and His Blog

    Twitter, News and Mob Journalism…

    The Trafigura story from last week has grown and grown, if only because of the follow-up, which I was too busy to blog about, in which Jan Moir’s piece in the Daily Mail was savaged across Twitter to remarkable effect…….