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Social Media Lobbying vs Phone Hacking

July 11, 2011

In days gone by a public scandal would have us going out into the street to vocalise our discontent, visit our MP, sign a petition, publish leaflets to spread the word. The phone hacking scandal has raised more than a few eyebrows and, on Wednesday, Cameron said he wants an inquiry. The story has gradually received more exposure in the press over the past year. In the normal course of events stories either escalate or peter out. However we have seen quite a consistent rise in interest with the phone hacking story. The facts have dripped out and on Wednesday the public’s patience hit the tipping point. In the face of inept quasi-judicial bodies the people, via social media, have taken effective action by instigating advertisers’ withdrawal from the News of The World (NoTW). By Thursday the 168 year old tabloid paper announced its closure.
What is interesting is that, apparently the phone hacking story has been around for 9 years. People have been prosecuted for phone hacking and the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has already reeled out a 167 report on this. The Information Commissioner (IC) has been implicated. The Select Committee has referred to the IC as ‘obfuscating’ and it seems the IC refrained from pursuing Fleet Street because of budgetary considerations. The Select Committee has brandished the Press Complaints Commission own investigation as ‘simplistic and surprising’. In all, the quasi-judicial machinery has not effectively clamped down on phone hacking practice.

In the face of this ineffectiveness, people have taken charge themselves to cause change. However rather than running out in the streets to vent their fury, they have taken to social media to be, arguably, more effective than the institutions. As with all newspapers advertising is a big earner. Advertisers have to take a view sometimes to dissociate themselves from a wayward personality or company. Tiger Woods saw some of his sponsors (Gillette and Accenture) pull the plug when the public found out about his indiscretions. Twitter campaigners on phone hacking understood this. So on Wednesday when the Guardian released the story that Milly Dowler’s phone was allegedly hacked and messages from her phone deleted, a firestorm of public fury broke out on Facebook and Twitter. A Melissa Harrison started to tweet the names of the advertisers on the News of The World (NoTW). This started a swarm of re-tweets and initiatives by other tweeters adopting a similar approach. One tweeter set up a way to automate the process of tweeting messages to the NoTW advertisers. Another tweeter set up a site with a downloadable spreadsheet with the details of the executives of the advertisers. According to the BBC this site has had over ’40,000 views in 24 hours’.

What impact has it had? Ford, O2, Shop Direct, Boots pulled out of NoTW and yesterday James Murdoch announced that the NoTW was to close. Of course some of these companies would have been aware of the scandal in the press and may have reached this conclusion separately. For James Murdoch maybe it was better to close NoTW to avoid the phone hacking ‘cancer’ spreading to News International.

Nonetheless, the power of social media has undeniably shown itself to be a force to reckon with. The Arab spring has shown us its role in the cause of overthrowing tyrants; now we see it used in a less radical but effective way in the cause of political and industry lobbying.

It was possibly too late for the News of the World already. Perhaps nothing they could have done would have made a difference. But if anything could have made a difference it would surely have been to deflect further criticism and outrage by immediately admitting their wrongdoing and apologising. The power of simple transparency and honesty should not be underestimated.