“Twitter can’t be gagged” is the headline from the Guardian digital content blog today and they are right to celebrate (if you missed the details of the story, there’s more information in the Guardian). Social media applications such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs do make it much harder for organisations to make gagging orders stick. The lesson, as many have found to their cost in many different cases, is that censorship is often self-defeating. Try to censor something and you just draw attention to it, largely from people who wouldn’t have even noticed if you kept quiet. There’s nothing like a good bit of righteous indignation to catapult a film to box office success or a legal injunction to do the same to a book.
However, before everyone gets too self-congratulatory, does any of this brief flirtation with online interest ever actually change anything? True, right now, lots of people who had probably never even heard of Trifigura will now be reading up on the dumping story, but, come tomorrow or next week, how many will still remember much about it? The bloggers will chalk up a victory and in this case the gagging order was actually lifted, but this is still an on-going case and nothing will have actually changed. Still, it’s early, so perhaps I’m just being a killjoy. Let’s look at the last big Twitter victory.
Search for Iran Elections Twitter on Google and you’ll get over three and a half million hits. Back in June the media was awash with stories of new media driven change. The Washington Post were talking about A Twitter Revolution and the US state department even asked that Twitter server maintenance was postponed to allow the tweets to keep flowing. For a week or so, the eyes of the world were on Iran. People coloured their avatars green to show solidarity with the Iranian protesters. Everyone was an expert in Iranian politics and sneering disapprovingly at Iranian election statistics with suspicious eyes. Twitter had spoken. The election was fraudulent and President Ahmadinejad, seeing his follower count dropping wildly and hardly anyone ‘Digg’ing him, did the decent thing and resigned.
Still, that’s a large complicated issue. Surely Twitter could have an affect in it’s own technical back yard?
Back in February, the New Zealand government proposed a new law which allowed ISPs to remove Internet connectivity from any user if they were believed to be infringing copyright, purely on accusation. The internet again was up in arms and many users blacked-out their Twitter avatars and MySpace pages in protest. Amazingly, that may have even had an effect and the law was scrapped. Chalk one up to Twitter? Well no, all that was actually agreed was the law would be looked at again and it seems like the new version may still contain the controversial Internet Termination Clause. Whether or not the rewrite is any better than the original and is protested once more remains to be seen, but it’s difficult to see the cause as job done quite yet.
Sites like Twitter are excellent for catching a wave and occasionally rallying a large number of people behind a cause, but it’s yet to become the force for social change that it’s being made out to be. Real issues sadly aren’t resolved in an afternoon and a normally more complicated than 140 characters. If social media is really going to make the impact that it could, then we all need to keep an eye on the issues which we find important and persue them, not just jump on while it’s in the news and let it quietly die. Nag your MP, pester the mainstream media and ask the annoying questions, not just when the issue is in the news, but repeatedly. It’s only by proving that we can stay interested in an issue that change happens, otherwise people will just wait till the dust settles and everything will stay the same.
Am I wrong? Has Twitter really changed the world? Leave a comment and let me know where it’s made a lasting difference.