Just A Bunch of Tweets?

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Computers with eyes on

Last Tuesday, the social networking site Twitter saved democracy.

Well, perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement. But the role Tweeters played in forcing the country's biggest firm of libel lawyers to withdraw their injunction against a national newspaper makes fascinating reading.

Let's go right to the start, because many of you reading won't have any idea what Twitter is about. If fact, if you haven't ever used it, you probably think it's full of hopeless people telling the world what they had for breakfast, blissfully unaware that the world couldn't care less. And to a large extent, you'd be right.

However, there are some fascinating people on Twitter. In a tweet everyone's name is preceded by an '@' symbol; mine is @blaggerscricket, or you might prefer @johncleese or even @h2g2Editors. You can choose to 'follow' someone with a click on their profile page; this works just like your friends list on h2g2. Every time they write a message (a 'Tweet', which can be no more than 140 characters long) it will be delivered to you automatically.

Most people don't log on to Twitter for half an hour or an hour and catch up with their friends, as they might on h2g2 or Facebook. It really comes into its own when you have a few minutes to kill in your coffee break at work, while waiting for your train or in front of the TV while the adverts are on. You might take a look and find there are 20 new tweets from the people you're following and find that only a few are of interest. That's the nature of it; as I've said, there's a lot of banality on there.

There's a bit more to it than that, but not much, and whether you're a Tweeter or not you're probably getting a bit bored by now and hankering after something interesting. So let's get on with the serious business of saving democracy, shall we?

On the evening of Monday 12th October, the Guardian newspaper was served an injunction preventing it from reporting on a Parliamentary question:

Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

- The Guardian, Monday 12th October, 8.31pm.

The paper noted that 'The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations', and left it at that.

This was outrageous.

This kind of last-minute intervention by lawyers to force editors to pull stories is becoming more and more commonplace, but this marked a new low. It was the first time a newspaper had been banned from reporting on Parliamentary business, a right that has been enshrined in law since the 17th Century. The injunction was also served against another (currently unnamed) newspaper, and the mainstream media was effectively silenced. Even Parliament could be quieted by the UK's controversial libel laws.

Well, almost.

There was that one clue – the involvement of Carter-Ruck. And the blogsphere could not be silenced so easily.

Overnight, interested bloggers tried to figure out what was going on. By the morning, they'd worked it out and a small number of blogs had provided all the details the Guardian couldn't. A good example of a well-written blog that had appeared by the time UK Tweeters got up was the Chicken Yogurt blog, which helpfully linked to Hansard, the Minton Report that nobody was even allowed to mention, and various archived news stories.

If these blogs had been left for Google to find, it would have taken a while for these blogs to start showing up in search results. This is where Twitter became key. People checking their Twitter accounts first thing in the morning found links to these blogs, including a tweet from Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian:

Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?

Also tweeting on the injunction were people like stephenfry (828,997 followers), charltonbrooker (73,267) and davegorman (52,465). Other tweeters read their messages and links and started to spread the word themselves. By now, it was common knowledge all over the blogosphere that the company concerned was Trafigura, who are currently suing both the Guardian and BBC Newsnight over claims that the company dumped toxic waste in the Ivory Coast1. Word spread quickly through Twitter, with tweeters using a 'hashtag' to let people know they were discussing this issue2. Hashtags are important not just because it's easy to find related discussions by searching for the hashtag (in this case, #trafigura, #carter-ruck and #gagging were the most popular) but also because it's also easy to find 'trends' by seeing how many people are using each hashtag. This screenshot from the excellent Trendistic shows how many tweets used the #trafigura hashtag on 13th October:

Graph showing #trafigura peaking just after 10am, with 1.2% of all tweets using this hashtag

That's pretty astonishing. That's not 1.2% of all tweeters tweeting about the issue at some point or other; that's 1.2% of all tweets using that one particular hashtag. Other hashtags were also being used to a lesser extent, and adding in the other related tags we find that one in fifty tweets in that 10-11am peak were related to the gagging issue.

A screenshot of the even more beautiful Trendsmap website shows the most popular tweets on 13th October even more clearly:

Graphic representation of tweets overlaid on a map of the UK, with #carter, #ruck, #trafigura, #gagging and #victory the most prominent by far.

This was astonishing and unprecedented. Tweeters took direct action, and encouraged others to do the same. The telephone and fax numbers of Trafigura's head office were posted for people to ring in and ask why the gagging order was in place. Cached versions were made of relevant webpages, just in case Carter-Ruck tried to get those sites shut down. A protest was planned outside the law firm's offices. We emailed our MPs3. A geek army was mobilised.

And we won.

By 2pm, the battle was over. Carter-Ruck withdrew their injunction just before a High Court hearing that would surely have torn it up; the newspaper was ecstatic, MPs were furious, and the BBC devoted a large segment of Newsnight to the issue.

How profound was Twitter's influence? The Guardian is likely to be publishing articles like this one for some time to come. Let's leave the final words to Messrs Rusbridger and Fry:

Thanks to Twitter/all tweeters for fantastic support over past 16 hours!
- Alan Rusbridger.
Can it be true? Carter-Ruck caves in! Hurrah! Trafigura will deny it had anything to do with Twitter, but we know don't we? We know! Yay!!!
- Stephen Fry.

General Features Archive


30.08.10 Front Page

19.09.09 Front Page

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1We must be clear that Trafigura refutes these allegations and has issued statements in response to both Newsnight and the Guardian's articles.2A hashtag is preceded by a '#' symbol and usually associated with an event or movement.3I discovered that mine is on the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which is always handy to know.

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