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News of the World and the silly Twit brands

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8th Jul 2011
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How much damage can you do to your brand if you don't fall in line with the Twitterati? Stuart Lauchlan explores.

Ford Motor did it. So did Vauxhall. And Boots. And the Co-op. And Virgin. And Asda. And Sainsbury's. Those major brands were among those that ran for the hills in order to prevent brand contamination from the News of World hacking scandal as a Twitter storm blew up around them. This was all as it should be in our brand-sensitive, reputationally aware, digitally enabled world.

Except, Tesco didn't play ball.

Tesco - which spent an estimated £1 million a year in the Sunday 'red top' – said that it wanted to wait until the outcome of current investigations into the newspaper's activities were concluded before it made any decision. In other words, it wanted to see proof of guilt – which when you think about is a fairly fundamental principle of UK justice: innocent until proven guilty.

But that presumption was in the days before Twitter and social media. Now, questions of guilt or innocence play second fiddle to the mob mentality that can be stirred up online. For Tesco, the result of its decision to wait for evidence before making any sudden moves was a rash of posts such the one that declared “That's it – I won't be shopping at Tesco on Friday night”. Whether this principled stand survives a few pints tonight and the realisation on the walk home that there's no milk in the fridge will remain a secret between that Tweeter and his conscience.

The Twitter storm – and the Facebook campaigns – did provide a powerful vehicle for the critics of the News of the World and News International in general. It was high profile, it was hugely visible – and it was a mob. Let's face it – it really was a mob mentality. That's not to doubt the genuine – and utterly understandable – fury of masses of people being directed against the News of the World and its alleged activities.

Bobbie Johnson on GigaOm put it very well when commenting:

"What was less surprising, perhaps, is that the Twitter corps immediately went into overdrive to claim this 'victory' as its own. Almost immediately, social media outlets were full of people trotting out the line that they had been a part... Is that what things have come to? This is the kind of glib, self-serving tripe that makes me mad — and it’s the sort of crying-wolf moment that means people think anyone online is smug and self-obsessed. But it really makes me mad because it’s wrong on so many levels."

That comment is best read when next to the modestly entitled "Why I set about hitting the News of the World where it hurts – its advertising" article by Melissa Harrison in The Guardian in which Ms Harrison talks us through her campaign of online activism to attach Rupert's evil empire.

She took to Twitter "knocking around a few ideas with friends: egging NewsCorp's offices? Going to the shops on Sunday and turning over all the copies of the paper? It didn't seem enough."

Indeed not. So she contacted News of the World advertisers via Twitter. She was retweeted. And someone else retweeted her. And on and on: "The activity was building; I was transfixed by my computer screen, and the dog didn't get an evening walk."

Lynch mob

All of this is delusionally amusing enough – one Guardianista's experience of bringing down the Great Satan of the right wing media. But then it all gets a bit pompous: "It's times like this when Twitter really comes into its own. As a truly democratic forum, everyone can get involved and have their say, and it's easy to share information and ideas. And because it's all so public, it's very hard for companies to ignore public pressure or hide behind rhetoric. For every 5,000 tweets with a funny cat photo there's a moment like this, when Twitter remembers what it can really do."

What? Start a lynch mob? Stir people up? Bring down Murdoch! Harass Tesco! Burn the witch! Death to the infidels! Bring back hanging!!! Let me tell you how outraged I am by whatever it is that we're outraged about right now!!!

I'm not for one second defending what the News of the World is alleged to have done – and from a purely personal point of view, there's no room for doubt in my own mind that a whole pile of people of News International are guilty as sin and deserve everything that is surely coming to them.

But that doesn't excuse the entirely exploitable, potential mob mentality aspect of Twitter which is as worrying as the genuinely empowering, crowd-sourcing, democratisation potential of it is exhilarating.

Not new news

It's not just the News of the World scandal that's seen this in action. Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher became embroiled in a Twitter row with New York newspaper The Village Voice – hardly a bastion of reactionary and right wing thinking. The newspaper had suggested that there are fewer teenage prostitutes in the US than Kutcher had suggested there are as part of a child prostitution awareness campaign. The Village Voice – which it should be noted basically supports Kutcher's campaign and wants to see more funding for it - cited official police statistics to back up its claim.

But Kutcher – with 7 million followers - took to Twitter, claiming: “Fact: news outlets who have financial interest in trafficking may have interest in applying bias to facts to secure their revenue.” He then posted directly to American Airlines which advertises with The Village Voice: “'Hey +AmericanAir. Are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?|”

The airline responded: 'We will address this IMMEDIATELY. Can you please DM us detail of the site, including a link?' Kutcher then tweeted to his followers: "Thank you! Via dm @AmericanAir --> Heads up: Ads should be down w/in the hour. Blank ads are being served for now."

Since then the stakes have been raised with Kutcher making further allegations: "speaking of Data... How many of your girls selling themselves in your classifieds are you doing age verification on?" and "Find another way to justify that YOUR property facilitates the sale of HUMAN BEINGS” and The Village Voice hitting back with: "Hey Ashton, which part this story is inaccurate?... we'll bite. Tell us the hard facts you have collected. We'll fact-check for you."

That one's going to run and run I suspect, but I find the ability to drag a third party (American Airlines) into the dispute and expose its brand (as well as the newspaper's) to potential reputational risk alarming. Now of course, we don't all have 7 million acolytes following our every thought, but it does illustrate the 'shouting down' potential of Twitter in agitated hands...

It was Twitter wot won it?

But let's be real. Two things brought down the News of the World. One, Mr and Mrs Average Joe who read the paper at the weekend as a naughty thrill to see what Ryan Giggs leg had been over this week suddenly weren't so sure this was fun any more once it was about Milly Dowler or Holly and Jessica. That went beyond the pale and was a PR disaster that wasn't about to be contained any time soon.

Secondly the BskyB merger and the necessary approval by the government was threatened by an over-febrile environment of public fury and political agitation. Taking the News of the World out of the equation doesn't solve all the problems by any manner of means, but it's tactical move on a far wider chess board. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a knave or two to protect your queen – and Rupert Murdoch plays a mean game of chess.

But no – to the Twitterati and the media commentators, "it was Twitter wot won it" - an initially amusing parody of an infamous Sun headline that rapidly became an online cliché, finally damned to perpetual ignobility by being parroted by Baron Prescott of Two Jags on the TV news as though he'd thought of it himself.

Not that that will stop the broadsheets taking a high-minded stance and the Twitterati congratulating themselves contentedly over the Sunday breakfast tables of the nation this weekend. Silly twits!

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