Revolutionary Measures

If a tree falls on Twitter……

The launch of CNN, back in 1980, ushered in the era of the 24 hour rolling news cycle. No longer did people have to wait for their morning papers or the 10pm TV news to find out what was happening in the world. And this had an impact on the news itself – rather than having to schedule events and press conferences to fit around journalists’ schedules, organisations could be confident that reporters would be available (and coverage would result) pretty much throughout the day. On the flipside unscrupulous PRs couldn’t try and sneak out bad news, knowing that it was just too late for print deadlines and would be out of date 24 hours later.

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The internet obviously accelerated the news cycle, making it even faster and more constant. You didn’t need to be watching CNN or other 24 hours news channels to see the latest stories, opening up access to everyone with a smartphone. It also allowed a wider range of media to reach people – you didn’t need to be a TV station or a major newspaper to break a story, you could be a citizen journalist or simply someone who was in the same place as a breaking news story. Essentially this democratised the reporting process. It became difficult for governments and corporations to spike negative stories as, hydra-headed, they simply popped up elsewhere.

We’re now in the midst of the next news cycle, focused on social media. As soon as something happens it is pored over on Twitter and Facebook, with both the public and experts giving their views. If previous news cycles were one reporter/media outlet to many readers or viewers this is essentially any to any – going beyond democracy to the text book definition of anarchy (‘without a ruler’).

In many ways this is a good thing, as it opens up the debate to multiple voices, many of whom have traditionally not been heard. But it drives three big issues that I believe threaten the integrity of how we get the information that shapes our world view and actions:

1. Who do you trust?
Major news organisations have a brand that their readers/viewers trust. They know what to expect when reading a story on The Sun compared to the Daily Mirror or the New York Times compared to Fox News. However, in the anarchic world of social media anyone can post ‘news’ or comments that are inaccurate or knowingly untrue. This fake news can be mischievous, misleading or designed to push a specific agenda, and is very hard to stamp out in the instant world of the internet. And the rise of fake news risks people tarring every news organisation with the same brush – we’ve all seen politicians describing as ‘fake’ stories that they simply disagree with.

2. Who shouts loudest, gets heard
Whether it is the distance that social media provides, polarisation of views or simply that the world is getting nastier, the amount of abuse and trolling on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook seems to be ever-increasing. Just this week Viscount St. Davids was found guilty of making menacing communications against Gina Miller, who led a legal challenge that forced the government to consult Parliament on Brexit. Amongst other abuse he offered £5,000 in a Facebook post to anyone that would run over Ms Miller. Parliament itself is holding a debate on the abuse suffered by MPs and candidates of both parties in the recent election campaign.

What seems to typify all of these communications is that people appear happy to say things online that they wouldn’t to someone’s face, and that very often it involves men abusing women, often in sexual terms, for daring to disagree with their views. The sheer weight of such trolling stifles honest debate and ultimately puts people off sharing their thoughts and opinions, or even self-censoring what they write.

3. Knee jerk reactions lead to instant actions
When stories break the true facts are often unclear. Whereas traditional news organisations would then take the time to research events and wouldn’t jump to conclusions the opposite is true on social media. People make immediate judgements and share them with the world, and the sheer force of tweets and messages can then shape the news agenda. A case in point is the recent disqualification of cyclist Peter Sagan from the Tour de France, for his involvement in a crash that forced Mark Cavendish out of the race. The race jury first gave him a lesser punishment, but then seemed to be swayed by the force of anti-Sagan anger on social media, changing their minds and throwing him out of the race. Taking time to study events in more detail would have led to a less knee jerk reaction, but it often feels that people believe they have to react instantly, without the full facts, leading to decisions that don’t necessarily stand up to future scrutiny.

The social media news cycle has undoubtedly delivered major benefits – it helped drive the Arab Spring for example. But its sheer anarchy means that everyone, from politicians and PRs to the general public, needs to think before they tweet if we are to have a fair, honest and unbiased discussion of news on social media.

Photo: By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

July 12, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sorting out the Twits on Twitter

New Troll and Old Troll (Front)

Twitter is currently at a pivotal point in its development in the UK. Having celebrated its seventh birthday in March, it now has 10 million users in the country and worldwide 400 million tweets are sent every day.

It is worth looking at these figures in the context of the current publicity around the hateful trolling of female celebrities on the microblogging network. Over 1 in 5 of the UK adult population is on Twitter and, as Baroness Lane-Fox has pointed out, the danger is that the genuine outrage about misogynistic threats on social networking will drown out the issues of violence against women in the real world.

Clearly there is a wider issue about how people, particularly men, feel they can treat others. Social media provides an anonymous and easy way to broadcast their ‘thoughts’, as they are able to hide behind their keyboards rather than having the guts to talk directly to people.

The danger is that the current abuse will drive right-minded people away from Twitter and it will lose some of its variety and ability to enable millions of conversations. A second worry is that in the run up to the election, the government will take action that, while it cracks down on trolls, curtails genuine freedom of speech.

So what can be done? While the 24 hour boycott was well-intentioned it risks the trolls feeling they’ve won. In my opinion what is needed is, unfortunately, increased proactive policing of the network. Twitter’s decision to add a report abuse button to every tweet is a step in the right direction but at the moment trolls don’t see the consequences of their actions. In the same way that the Lord McAlpine Twitter libel case brought home to people that social media is not above the law, a similar high profile trial of trolls is needed to demonstrate that abuse, threats and harassment is as unacceptable online as off.

Currently the CPS guidelines on prosecuting offensive tweets require either a credible threat of violence, stalking/harassment of specific individuals or breach of a court order. ‘Grossly offensive, indecent, offensive or false’ communications have to pass a high threshold of evidence and the guidelines state that ‘in many cases a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest.’ Therefore while prosecutions would happen for some of the most high profile trolling cases, the vast majority will slip through the net. The police have said they don’t have the resources to monitor every offensive communication. This puts the ball back into Twitter’s court and it is time it began suspending accounts more quickly and making it more difficult to reactivate them. Naming and shaming of trolls is another option – witness the abject apology given to Mary Beard after someone threatened to tell the troll’s mother about his behaviour.

Twitter, like other social networks, has crossed the chasm into mainstream life. What is needed is fast action to demonstrate that actions online have the same consequences as they would have offline, with fast prosecution of offenders and, before that, suspension of accounts. While this may not cure misogyny and violence against women in the real world, it will send out a strong message that it will not be tolerated online.

 

 

August 7, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , | 1 Comment