Popular public consensus can be easily swung. If you’re caught doing something you shouldn’t, your reputation can be irrevocably destroyed in a matter of moments. Social networking has provided the catalyst for many such campaigns, informing the wider world of scandals and tragedies in an instant.
Whilst traditional media sources unleash revelations, millions of users pass it on from one to another in instant relay. The opposite is also becoming increasingly true, with newspapers feeding off of eyewitness reports and viral campaigns online. However, it is the immediacy and the influence that both sides have on one another that has become the big story.
Many claimed that the uprising in Egypt was triggered by Facebook. This was disputed in some quarters, however there can be little doubt that it provided an effective platform for protesters to converge and converse. There have been pockets of outrage and talks of boycotts from Twitter users (more often than not aimed at the Daily Mail), many of which have had a major impact. But as yet, there hasn’t been a major populist movement that has had genuine far-reaching consequences, certainly in the UK.
Public Anger Difficult to Suppress
However, the latest News of the World allegations might well prove a tipping point in the maturation of social networking and its relationship with the media.
Whilst the story about the alleged hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone emerged in the newspapers on Tuesday, with attribution going to The Guardian, it was already dominating the trends across Twitter on Monday afternoon – after the story was published online. Indignant users were already plotting the downfall of Rebekah Brooks, The News of the World and even News International.
This indignation hasn’t died down like so many other protests though. Instead it has built; the BBC and ITN giving the story prime billing, the protagonists are splashed across the front pages of every newspaper and new, even worse, revelations are drip fed each day. There was even an emergency parliamentary debate concerning a public inquiry on the issue.
Essentially it is a story that can’t simply be swept under the carpet. Regardless of any one company’s supposed dominance of traditional media, other outlets and social networking sites are ensuring that it remains in the public consciousness. This is symbolic of the power that the Internet, and online community in general, has to make or break a reputation or a business – despite its size.
Direct Action and Response
Need further proof? Within hours of the allegation being made by The Guardian, Twitter users and Facebook groups began lobbying companies who advertise with the News of the World. Ford, one of their biggest clients, were first to withdraw. Since then advertisers have been dropping like flies, with campaigners forcing them to react.
Social networking has provided ordinary people with a powerful voice. It has also made it easier to show your distain. A simple like or re-tweet will lend your voice to the millions of others. Due to the severity of the accusations against News Corp, they may well have withdrawn anyway, but having clear popular opinion on your side certainly helps make the decision process easier.
It’s great PR for those who have dropped out too. Mitsubishi are just one of the advertisers who’ve withdrawn their campaigns from the News of the World for the coming weekend. Their PR department tweeted this and announced that they would be donating the money to Childline instead (a suggestion by a Facebook user). If anything is likely to get a double thumbs up from the enraged masses, it is exactly that.
Social and Traditional Media Converging
The media and corporations are listening. Whilst the mob mentality that is often employed doesn’t sit well with everyone (myself included), its effect when there is huge public support makes it impossible to ignore. Corporations, small businesses and individuals are now held accountable for all actions. Whether you’re accused of hacking the phones of dead servicemen’s families or are a footballer caught playing away from home, trending on Twitter can now note the beginning of the end.
When it comes to News Corp, it would certainly be more convenient for the Government to bury it and move on to ‘more pressing issues’. But the wider public simply don’t appear to want to let the story go. People are genuinely angry that the families of war dead, murdered children and victims of terrorist attacks are being targeted. This has led to arguments about a monopolised media, BSKYB takeovers and Rupert Murdoch’s involvement in politics; the lid of Pandora’s box appears to have been lifted and shutting it again may not be easy.
Politicising the Masses
People have been forcibly politicised. Whilst they may not have cared about who ran the Times, Sun or News of the World beforehand, these revelations and the coverage they’ve received has forced into the wider consciousness. Social networking has had a huge part to play in that. Whilst you can ignore newspapers and television, many can’t walk away from their Facebook or Twitter feeds quite so easily – which makes it unavoidable.
There is pressure on politicians to review the BSKYB deal, something which will almost certainly have to be done after any inquiry has taken place. As mentioned earlier, they have also been forced to debate the issue (despite any personal ties) and will need to set up independent, public inquiries to investigate what has been going on. The end game for all of this could be monumental, certainly in terms of the landscape of the British media.
Whilst I would never belittle the efforts of The Guardian to expose these issues and the rest of the press for disseminating it, the campaigns and groundswell of public opinion have been largely built around social networking. So for anyone who would doubt its power to influence, keep an eye out for the News of the World story.
There are more positive examples though. One that caught my attention recently, and has continued to do so, is a blog set up by a 15 year old girl with terminal cancer who created a bucket list. On its own, this would get very little attention. A good PR might have seen it get a little attention in a national newspaper and a front page splash in the local rag, but it could easily get overlooked and forgotten about.
However, once word spread on Twitter, Alice’s Bucket List went global. A small personal blog gained thousands of visitors overnight simply down to retweets and well wishers. As a result it has since been featured in newspapers and on international news stations. This has led to a number of things getting ticked off of her list, including meeting Take That and swimming with sharks, whilst also raising awareness of the importance of donating bone marrow – the primary goal of the site.
So if you’ve got a campaign that you feel strongly about, Facebook and Twitter might well be the starting point for something much larger. PR relies on public participation and the widest possible circulation, if you can’t achieve this through traditional media platforms, social media may provide an adept alternative.
Twitter trends remain faddy though. Public consensus can quickly waver, particularly when newer, more interesting stories come along. So there is a risk that temporary visibility will soon fall back into inconsequential anonymity. However, this could be the first instance in Britain where genuine widespread public indignation develops into a story in itself.
With advertisers already pulling out and share prices tumbling, the social revolution has legs. Whether it can have genuine influence over a prolonged period will no doubt be determined in the coming weeks and months though. Questions are being asked in the House of Commons, Scotland Yard and of the wider media and its influence/actions, which is pretty monumental.
It’s a case study in the making though and one that I will be following keenly.