For some considerable time, the Guardian has been publishing the ongoing developments in a story about the journalistic practises at the News of the World. The News of the World was, until quite recently, a member of that uniquely British institution, the Red Top Tabloid Newspaper. Central to the Guardian‘s stories was the ongoing accusation that the newspaper had been persistently and systematically intercepting phone calls on mobile (cell) phones and, in particular, illegally hacking into the voicemail of a number of politicians, celebrities, and members of the Royal Family.
It’s fair to say that outside of those with an interest in privacy issues and data protection, the story struggled to gain a high level of media attention. Politicians and celebrities (of whatever grade) were, for different reasons, not overly blessed with a surfeit of sympathy from the Great British Public. As a result, the very serious allegations being made by the Guardian were systematically downplayed and dismissed by, well, just about anybody in a position of power in the UK. The position taken was more or less “a couple of dodgy journalists have gone to jail for this, rogue reporters, nothing to see here, aren’t there more important things to be worrying about?”
And then everything changed.
At 16:29 BST on Monday July 4th, the Guardian published (online first) a further article with the following headline: “Missing Milly Dowler’s voicemail was hacked by News of the World”
The story linked above speaks for itself. Milly Dowler was just 13 years old when she was abducted and killed in 2002. Suddenly, and with furious clarity, the illegal interception of private phone messages in order to generate salacious stories could be seen for what it was — a gross and heinous invasion of privacy, a violation of a persons basic rights, and an act of depravity.
I read the story minutes after it first appeared, the link popping into my Twitter feed with an accompanying comment of shock and disbelief. My sense of anger and fury was rapidly mirrored by the circle of people I follow and who follow me. And of course their circles. And so on.
Now, a while back, I’d signed up to some online petition destined to be printed out and delivered to number 10 Downing St (never to be acted upon, of course). Based on this, I receive regular exhortations to lend my name to various protests. I ignore them, but some vestige of social engagement stops me from actively removing my name from the mailing list. Early Monday evening found me once again putting my name to a petition (aimed at stopping the takeover of the UK satellite TV company BSkyB by Newscorp, the owners of the News of the World) via a Twitter request from the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott (an alleged victim of the phone hacking). It didn’t feel like much.
Whilst I was muttering impotently into a glass of wine on that evening, three participants on Twitter (@eroticpuffin, @profanityswan, and @the_z_factor) were discussing what they could do meaningfully to protest the actions of the newspaper. They hit on the idea of collating and sharing a list of Twitter accounts associated with companies that advertised with the News of the World. Early on July 5th, a Google doc and a Web page that would allow Twitter users to easily tweet a standard message to the social networking accounts of advertisers started to be shared. Towards the end of the day, Ford announced that they were pulling their advertising from the News of the World. Early on the evening of the 5th, one of those messages reached me, and, suddenly able to do something a little more direct, I started to contact the companies who have received money from me, using a (by now) standard form of words inviting them to reconsider advertising with the paper. (If you want to see an example, here’s one.)
Claims that social media are responsible for some dramatic change always have to be considered carefully for their veracity. But on this occasion, the link seems to be fairly direct. By Thursday July 7th, the News of the World no longer had any advertisers for their upcoming editions, and an unimaginable event then took place. News International closed the newspaper with immediate effect (the edition on Sunday 10th July would be its last).
The News of the World was the first UK paper purchased by Rupert Murdoch. It was profitable. It was an effective bully pulpit for the media mogul. Even in a climate of falling newspaper circulations, it still commanded over two million readers for each weekly edition (I imagine many newspapers in the US would dream of such numbers). On July 3rd, the idea that the newspaper would cease to exist within a few days seemed farcical. If you want to know what a Black Swan event looks like, look no further.
I’m reflecting on the role of social media in precipitating one of the biggest scandals of modern times here in the UK because, all too often, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest are dismissed as no more than places where the banal triumphs over enlightened thought and discussion.
Well, it’s true, we do share a lot of cat pictures. There’s a reason for that. Most of the time, our general conversation trends towards the inconsequential. But the network effect is a strange and peculiar thing. If you participate in a social network, chances are that you are participating in a clique. Comparing your network with a random selection of other members of that network is likely to result in a very high overlap of participants. Which begs the question, if most networks are highly clustered, information should flow within them fairly freely. But information flowing into or out of them should be quite restricted (hence worries about Twitter et al acting as echo chambers — as if these didn’t exist before the invention of the Internet).
So how on Earth did I get to see a link created by @eroticpuffin and colleagues, given that I do not follow them, or any of their immediate (and not so immediate) network?
Enter the work of Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s “Small World” experiment showed that some parts, or nodes, of a network may be either highly connected to a diverse array of other networks, or they may act to connect otherwise isolated networks together. You don’t need very many of these nodes (or people) to reduce the separation between clusters very dramatically. When this happens, information can flow freely between and then within groups of otherwise unconnected people. It happens a lot.
This is different. This is new. This isn’t about whichever flavour of social network in getting the venture capital money and the over inflated valuations of its worth. The existence of platforms for the creation of social interactions between people who may have never met each other is a step change in the way information propagates. It could be snarky comments about how internet explorer users are less intelligent than the users of other browsers (ie a hoax). It could be pictures of drunken friends on a night out. It could be the sharing of resources for citizen science or alternative scholarly metrics. Or it could be the citizens of the new world (who are sometimes #altmetrics, #citizenscience, #archeology, #oncology, #lolcats, and more) independently recognising the opportunity to speak truth to power, an opportunity given to them by a small group of committed people who discovered each other on July 4, 2011, and brought down a newspaper inside of a week.