Monday, October 19, 2009

Information, suppression and social media

The Internet is still changing the way information is gathered and shared. Much of what passes for news is now often hearsay, passed quickly through the various social media, but sometimes it’s a bit more.

Not long ago, the Iranian regime tried to hide the truth of its rigged elections and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. They might have been able to keep it all secret—if YouTube and Twitter hadn’t kept the story alive.

In Britain, a law firm has gone to extraordinary lengths on behalf of its client. They’d already won a suppression order to keep newspapers from reporting on the case, but when they found out a question was to be raised about it during Question Time in Parliament, they got an order forbidding the publication of the details of that, too.

However, the question was posted on Parliament’s own website and people quickly figured out what was going on and spread the news through Twitter, Facebook and other media. The truth got out, despite the efforts to suppress it. The law firm didn’t learn its lesson, however, and are reportedly attempting to block Parliament from discussing the matter. While parliaments in most Westminster-style systems routinely refrain from discussing matters that are sub judice—under judicial consideration—that’s usually merely a courtesy (it’s unclear whether a court would attempt to tell any parliament what it could and could not discuss). I bet that if there had been no suppression orders, hardly anyone would know or care about the specifics of the case, so they may have made things worse for their client.

Then, also in Britain, a columnist for the Daily Mail made some outrageously homophobic remarks about the death of Stephen Gately, and when people understandably complained, she claimed to be the victim of “a heavily orchestrated internet campaign” (for the record, she claims her remarks weren’t homophobic, but that’s a topic in itself).

What the Iranians didn’t realise is that the so-called “New Media” allow people to report on things that journalists in the newsmedia simply can’t. What the British law firm didn’t realise was that no one likes being told what they can and can’t know, and they hate their democratic rights being trampled.

And what the British columnist doesn’t understand is that no one needs to “orchestrate” anything anymore. People just Tweet it or put in on Facebook, it gets repeated and in minutes millions of people can know about it.

This makes the Iranian regime, the British law firm and the columnist all seem rather quaint and old-fashioned, as if they were just learning about this thing called The Internet. It also makes them seem more than a little stupid for not understanding the power of these social media to spread information quickly.

Of course, not all information that’s spread is quality information (Tweets with unfounded rumours of celebrity deaths, for example). But sometimes New Media and social media can spread the truth that governments or corporations want to suppress. And when that happens, it makes all the false rumours worth enduring.


Roger Owen Green said...

I guess the problem with the British court story is that I tend to think that American trials have too damn much pre-trial publicity, with major ramifications. So I always looked at the suppression of pre-trial publicity in the UK as a good thing. It may become increasingly more unlikely to maintain, but I certainly support it conceptually.

Arthur Schenck said...

I don't have a problem with suppression orders per se—many countries, like New Zealand, use them for criminal trials. The problem I have with the British case is the lawyers are going too far: I don't believe suppressing the publication of Question in Parliament is legitimate, and they certainly have no right (or power, in my view) to forbid Parliament from discussing anything. But this is a very unique case—and hopefully, it'll remain unique.