A vengeful lolcat.
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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.

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David Smith

David Smith

David Smith is a frood who knows where his towel is, more or less. He’s also the Head of Product Solutions for The IET. Previously he has held jobs with ‘innovation’ in the title and he is a lapsed (some would say failed) scientist with a publication or two to his name.


7 Thoughts on "Sometimes We Post Pictures of Cats, and Sometimes We Speak Truth to Power"

See which future do you envisage? …

1) Ordinary people use social media to rise up against the inequities of the world; demonstrating to the few that control everything that they cannot continue to do so against the weight of numbers.

2)Murdoch (or “Son of Murdoch”) controls social media.

I’m leaning towards 1) (in democracies). One of the things I didn’t mention in the article was the use of twitter by one of the Members of Parliament who has been heavily involved in pursuing this whole sorry business. He was connecting not only with his direct constituents, but also with a wider community who were actively helping him with the research that was needed. You can read more about that here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/02/tom-watson-phone-hacking

To me the whole control business is built on controlling the flow of information. It’s the standard response to a crisis – control the information flow. In a networked world, the information paths are highly redundant, so shutting off the flow is not so easy.

There’s another point of course. Large crowds are not automatically wise. They might equally be roused to wholly inappropriate responses given the right combination of stimuli.

Nice to see “Missing White Woman Syndrome” playing a positive societal role for a change. The tricky thing about speaking truth to power is, of course, that your truth may be different from mine. It’s easy to cheer like-minded people coming together to take down a tyrant like Murdoch, but those same tools are being used for other purposes as well. In the end, having more voices heard is a good thing, but it also means having to deal with voices pushing for censorship or other extreme political agendas.

Agreed. I think there are many issues to solve as a result of the increased flow of information. One of them is understanding what is signal (ie in need of a response of some sort) and what is noise. Another (in this case) is what happens when the activity of one network is exposed to all the other networks. This is why privacy is such an important debate (one that frankly isn’t really happening in my opinion). A debate on what can be done with the data that accrues from our movements through the information space is also vital. Bringing it back to our elected leaders (of whatever country), I have my doubts about their ability to bring the required rigour to this process.

The so-called “small world” is just one of several basic topologies which a network can have, and a lot of the communication behavior depends on the topology. This is a major network theory research area, which scientific communication might benefit from knowing about.

In fact my team claims to have found an important new feature in science networks, a phase transition that marks the acceptance of a major new idea by a community. It is also when a new field crystallizes around a new paradigm, perhaps calling for a new journal.

See http://www.osti.gov/innovation/research/diffusion/BettencourtKaiser_TopologicalTransition_OSTI.pdf and

Thanks for the links. I’ll take a look. I’ve been watching (and participating) in Google Plus and it’s been very interesting as I and others in my (our?) network grapple with its properties and mechanisms of information transmission. As an aside, with the recent riots, the UK government has just realised that people use social networks to exchange information and plan things and with tedious predictability are muttering about shutting twitter down in times of ‘National Emergency’. They too could usefully get a primer on how information networks actually function.

They are a bit behind in their history, as email played this role in the fall of the Soviet Union. Ironically, the Internet was developed by the military, to be bomb proof (literally), but it turned out to be control proof as well. Very much like the broadside era but on a vastly greater scale.

But then it cuts both ways, as the intelligence community is trying to use network analysis of message traffic to monitor social behavior. They are the largest funders of network research, including visualization. There are no secret conversations on the Internet, they are just hard to find. As someone who studies ideas as living things, I love this stuff.

My team started out using a disease model for the spread of new ideas. From the UK governments perspective this is more than a mathematical metaphor.

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