Twitter: a force for good?

21 October 2009

I did not hold Twitter in particularly high regard and believed that it was being hyped up by zealots. Two events last week have forced me to reconsider my scepticism towards Twitter as a medium.

Firstly, Twitter was instrumental, alongside Private Eye and the Guardian newspaper, in scuppering the so-called super-injunction granted to Trafigura. Secondly, Twitter played a role in highlighting a truly awful article in Daily Mail, which led to a huge number of complaints being lodged with the PCC. In both cases, traditional media and other means of communication (e.g. phone, letter-writing, passing on e-mails and links) would not have generated such force of public opinion.

Ms Jan Moir, who penned the odious article, saw an orchestrated campaign against her. I believe her to be wrong: there was no organized movement orchestrated by a conductor, but a sum of spontaneous reactions, made possible by the faster and easier flow of information, and ease of communication. Even if someone famous such as Mr Stephen Fry was instrumental in getting a larger audience, it’s hardly credible to think that his followers would abandon their own critical thinking and do as they are told as if these people were robots.

In the pre-internet era, people would not have known about this particular article, unless they had purchased a copy of the Daily Mail and read it. Perhaps the article would be reported the following day by another newspaper. Some readers would have been (quite rightly) offended, but it requires some effort either to write a complaint and send it off, or to phone up the company or the PCC to complain. Crucially, the reader would not know how widespread the anger is: it is one person complaining in isolation. Now, with the internet, and especially with the likes of Twitter, a bad or a good article can be reported or reproduced immediately, and people know whether it’s a burning issue or not. Lodging a complaing has become easier with the internet too, as letter-writing and phone calls became unnecessary.

Twitter then gives many people, who would not have otherwise complained or made their views public, an opportunity to state their opinion and participate in the dynamic. If most people are decent, then this medium can trump corporate interests and overt bias.

However, like any other media forms, there is a possibility that Twitter can be used in a concerted operation, directed consciously by someone, for certain ends. The ends could be benign but could also be malicious. The question is whether internet users can think on their own, rather than being mere followers. Media literacy will become more and more important, in a world where many people have a part in creation of news and public opinion, and are not mere consumers.