Massively un-orchestrated


The last seven days have been a proud period for Twitter in the UK.

First up, the power of networks blew apart an arguably unconstitutional and malignant “super-injunction” that prevented a newspaper reporting on Parliament.

Next, a community of interest formed around a grim, homophobic column in the Daily Mail about a pop star who had recently died. Within hours advertisers had withdrawn their spots from the web page, the paper had to issue a statement and in the following days more complaints were made to the Press Complaints Commission than in the previous five years put together.

As Jan Moir – the columnist who maligned and snarked theĀ  pop star – and the Daily Mail recomposed themselves this week some predictable phrases emerged about liberal “echo chambers” and an “orchestrated campaign” on the internet.

Both phrases are problematic, but the latter caught my attention most. Both the Trafigura injunction and Jan Moir column incidents were anything but orchestrated.

Let’s take a look at the kind of orchestrated she was thinking about…

The classic tactic of the American New Right and their Christian fundamentalist fellow travelers around the world from the 1980s onward was the phone tree. Networks were organised through churches and religious/political publications so that if something appeared on a TV show that was offensive to their morality they phoned the TV station to complain and, say, five other activists who may not have been watching the show (or perhaps were watching it and hadn’t realised that they should have been offended). Those activists would then call the station and then five other members of the tree.

As TV stations (and elected politicians, media watchdogs) tended to extrapolate public opinion from the number of letters or calls they got (one letter equals, says, 100 angry viewers) this tactic was used to disproportionately represent the opinions of what Nixon called “the moral majority”.

That’s not to give a value judgement, to say that they were better or more pure as spontaneous, mass network campaigns. It’s just that online networks like the ones that were using Twitter, don’t need to be “massively orchestrated” or premeditated.

As hours pass, I would argue that orchestration emerges in these situations. Petitions are created, hashtags get ordered, sites and tools emerge to help people take action or spread the word.

For more: There is an excellent discussion on this subject between Emily Bell and Stephen Brook on this week’s Media Guardian podcast.

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