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net.wars: The power of Twitter

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 October 2009


It was the best of mobs, it was the worst of mobs.

Wendy M Grossman

The last couple of weeks have really seen the British side of Twitter flex its 140-character muscles. First, there was the next chapter of the British Chiropractic Association's ongoing legal action against science writer Simon Singh. Then there was the case of Jan Moir, who wrote a more than ordinarily Daily Mailish piece for at paper about the death of Boyzone's Stephen Gately. And finally, the shocking court injunction that briefly prevented the Guardian from reporting on a Parliamentary question for the first time in British history.

I am on record as supporting Singh, and I, too, cheered when, ten days ago, Singh was granted leave to appeal Justice Eady's ruling on the meaning of Singh's use of the word "bogus". Like everyone, I was agog when the BCA's press release called Singh "malicious". I can see the point in filing complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority over chiropractors' persistent claims, unsupported by the evidence, to be able to treat childhood illnesses like colic and ear infections.

What seemed to edge closer to a witch hunt was the gleeful take-up of George Monbiot's piece attacking the "hanging judge", Justice Eady. Disagree with Eady's ruling all you want, but it isn't hard to find libel lawyers who think his ruling was correct under the law. If you don't like his ruling, your correct target is the law. Attacking the judge won't help Singh.

The same is not true of Twitter's take-up of the available clues in the Guardian's original story about the gag to identify the Parliamentary Question concerned and unmask Carter-Ruck, the lawyers who served it and their client, Trafigura. Fueled by righteous and legitimate anger at the abrogation of a thousand years of democracy, Twitterers had the PQ found and published thousands of times in practically seconds. Yeah!

Of course, this phenomenon (as I'm so fond of saying) is not new. Every online social medium, going all the way back to early text-based conferencing systems like CIX, the WELL, and, of course, Usenet, when it was the Internet's town square (the function in fact that Twitter now occupies) has been able to mount this kind of challenge.

Scientology versus the Net was probably the best and earliest example; for me it was the original net.war. The story was at heart pretty simple (and the skirmishes continue, in various translations into newer media, to this day). Scientology has a bunch of super-secrets that only the initiates, who have spent many hours in expensive Scientology training, are allowed to see.

Scientology's attempts to keep those secrets off the Net resulted in their being published everywhere. The dust has never completely settled.

Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, said Mark Twain. That was before the Internet. Scientology was the first to learn – nearly 15 years ago – that the best way to ensure the maximum publicity for something is to try to suppress it. It should not have been any surprise to the BCA, Trafigura, or Trafigura's lawyers.

Had the BCA ignored Singh's article, far fewer people would know now about science's dim view of chiropractic. Trafigura might have hoped that a written PQ would get lost in the vastness that is Hansard; but they probably wouldn't have succeeded in any case.

The Jan Moir case, and the demonstration outside Carter-Ruck's offices are, however rather different. These are simply not the right targets. As David Allen Green (Jack of Kent) explains, there's no point in blaming the lawyers; show your anger to the client (Trafigura) or to Parliament.

The enraged tweets and Facebook postings about Moir's article helped send a record number of over 25,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission, whose Web site melted down under the strain. Yes, the piece was badly reasoned and loathsome, but isn't that what the Daily Mail lives for? Tweets and links create hits and discussion. The paper can only benefit.

In fact, it's reasonable to suppose that in the Trafigura and Moir cases both the Guardian and the Daily Mail manipulated the Net perfectly to get what they wanted.

But the stupid part about let's-get-Moir is that she does not matter. Leave aside emotional reactions, and what you're left with is someone's opinion, however distasteful.

This concerted force would be more usefully turned to opposing the truly dangerous. See for example, the AIDS denialism on parade by Fraser Nelson at The Spectator. The "come-get-us" tone  suggests that they saw attention New Humanist got for Caspar Melville's mistaken – and quickly corrected – endorsement of the film House of Numbers and said, "Let's get us some of that." There is no more scientific dispute about whether HIV causes AIDS than there is about climate change or evolutionary theory.

If we're going to behave like a mob, let's stick to targets that matter. Jan Moir's column isn't going to kill anybody. AIDS denialism will.

So: we'll call Trafigura a win, chiropractic a half-win, and Moir a loser.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).