As 2012 draws to a close, I look back on it as the year of Twitter. Perhaps it is because I am a little slow at getting interested in social media and associated trends that I had thought Twitter a trendy PR tool, interesting and sometimes entertaining, but nothing more. 2012 has changed that.
This is the year a US president announced his reelection on Twitter. “Four more years” was retweeted a record-breaking 800,000 times. Twitter became what national television was before the proliferation of channels, a public service. And when hurricane Sandy hit New York, I found it interesting that the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, used Twitter to keep people informed about the situation on the ground.
Twitter is highly democratic; everyone has the chance to reach the whole world through the power of 140 characters. It is free and devoid of political affiliation, a perfect platform for anyone with a message to disseminate. Gone are the days when you needed to write a press release, send it to news agencies, which would then pass it on to newspapers and broadcasters, who would then decide whether or not to use it to produce news content. Now you can contact the public directly at the press of a button.
A great platform for disseminating information is also a great platform for propaganda as the Israelis showed us in November when they live-tweeted their attacks on Gaza. Seeing the Israelis post pictures and videos of them bombing and killing their “targets” was sickening. Of course this kind of footage has long been available online and terrorists of all kinds love posting gruesome pictures of their actions, but seeing those images on Twitter was different because it brought it into the mainstream.
Twitter continues to be a platform for venting personal grievances. For instance the footballer Rio Ferdinand vented his anger after John Terry was acquitted at a trial of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, his brother. He was angry at Ashley Cole, a key witness at the trial, who claimed not to have heard the racial slur and so he insulted him on Twitter. The tweet got Ferdinand in trouble with the Football Association who charged him with improper conduct.
Or remember the undignified spectacle in France, of the new first lady letting her jealousy of the mother of her partner’s children get the better of her and publishing a tweet supporting her love rival’s political rival in the parliamentary elections. The newly-elected president of France found himself the subject of much ridicule, hardly the way to be taken seriously as a statesman.
You don’t need to be human to tweet. A robot by the name of Curiosity Rover informed us in August that it was on Mars: “I am safely on the surface of Mars. Gale Crater I am in you” - and sent us the pictures to prove it! Quite amazing.
But mainly Twitter is used to talk about people, what they think, what they see, what they do, celebrities and ordinary people alike. It is a chance to make your views known, to react to items in the news and also to retweet other people’s tweets. Retweeting is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter. Again it is highly democratic, a kind of vote by another means. It creates a buzz or as I prefer it, a snowball, pushing something to become bigger and go further than it would naturally have done. Great when you are retweeting an event that pleases you such as Barack Obama’s reelection, not so great when you are retweeting false allegations.
This autumn we saw the consequences of retweeting such false allegations.
Lord McAlpine, a former British politician, was falsely accused of being involved in child sex crimes. He decided to sue for libel. At one point his lawyers were talking of suing as many as 10,000 Twitter users who propagated this false information, then it came down to 20 prominent Twitter users. Whether any of these legal actions ever see the light of day or not, Twitter users have lost their innocence. You don’t need to explicitly say something yourself, you can insinuate or ask a leading question. For instance Sally Bercow, the wife of the British Speaker of Parliament, tweeted at the time: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*”. Retweet what others have said and you can be charged with libel. The fact that you are not the source of the allegation is irrelevant and that is something too many people have forgotten, and not just on Twitter.I was most interested to read this week of a school in England that has decided to teach its pupils about how libel laws relate to Twitter and other social media. Pupils of 13 and 14 at a private school in Somerset now have classes on how to use social media responsibly, both in terms of protecting their own privacy and ensuring their safety. Part of this is a class on the basics of libel and defamation, but it goes further as they are also taught about the ethics of posting content online. I think it’s a great initiative. My only regret is that you have to be a student at this school; surely we could all do with such lessons!
— Imane Kurdi is a Saudi writer on European affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org