Thatcher’s death - how Twitter democratised reaction

Tuesday 9 April 2013, 10:38

Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones is BBC technology correspondent

Margaret Thatcher For once this was not a news story that broke first on Twitter. For the past few years the social network has alerted me and many others to all kinds of breaking news. It was a traditional news source, the Press Association, which flashed the breaking news line at 12.47pm.

“Baroness Thatcher died this morning following a stroke, her spokesman Lord Bell said.”

The first tweets I can find were at 12.48pm, within seconds of that PA flash - among them my BBC colleagues Stuart Hughes (@stuartdhughes) and James Pearce (@pearcesport). Strangely, the PA’s Twitter feed (@pressassoc) did not pass on the news until 12.50pm.

But from then on Twitter was consumed by the news, and was the place many went to offer tributes - or to fight over the Thatcher legacy.

Among the first tribute tweets I spotted was this from Conservative MP Therese Coffey at 12.55pm: “RIP Margaret Thatcher. You transformed our country for the better, putting Great back in Great Britain, & helped open the Iron Curtain.”

Lord Sugar - who was a Labour minister under Gordon Brown - explained how the Iron Lady had transformed the business world: “Baroness Thatcher in the 80's kick-started the entrepreneurial revolution that allowed chirpy chappies to succeed and not just the elite.”

Many more followed, from presidents and prime ministers past and present, and all manner of celebrities. Even five years ago, politicians and other well-known people might have issued statements or rung broadcasters. Now it seems that they see Twitter as the fastest and most effective medium to share their thoughts with the world.

But, as supporters tried to sum up the Thatcher legacy in 140 characters, a number of less enthusiastic voices were making themselves heard. Labour tweeters urged party members to be respectful - but the Respect MP George Galloway was in no mood for restraint, tweeting “Tramp the dirt down”. There was instant, furious reaction, and this and a number of other shouting matches filled the social network with bile for some hours.

Twitter comments on Thatcher death Twitter was also the place to find more illuminating information - from links to obituaries to data about the UK’s economic record under the Thatcher premiership.

While much of Twitter’s global audience seemed fascinated by the story, some were left confused. After Harry Styles of One Direction paid his own tribute - “RIP Baroness Thatcher.x” - some of his fans wanted to know who he was talking about. “i am sorry :( but who was this person?” asked one. Mind you, Harry’s tweet was retweeted by many more than David Cameron’s tribute, so he may have played a role in educating a new generation about recent history.

By late afternoon there had been more than a million mentions of the story, and the hashtag #Thatcher was trending in the UK, the US and worldwide. The company says the volume of tweets rivalled those for the announcement of the new Pope.

So how do we sum up the way Twitter has transformed coverage of a story like this? Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher’s political soulmate and a similarly divisive figure, died in 2004 before social media took off.

Looking back at the BBC’s web coverage on that death, it does include comments from readers, although they have obviously been selected by an editor some days after the event.

Now, anyone can instantly broadcast their views on Baroness Thatcher, reaching a global audience which may be moved or outraged. So Twitter has not only accelerated the speed at which the world digests a major news story, it has democratised reaction to it. Is that a positive development? You decide - in 140 characters or fewer.

 

Social media newsgathering

Searching social media? Don’t miss what’s hiding in plain sight

The BBC Academy offers face-to-face and online courses for BBC staff only: 

Social Media & Connected Journalism

Comments

Be the first to comment

Share this page

More Posts

Previous
College of Journalism launches second student innovation award

Friday 5 April 2013, 09:32

Next
Thatcher’s legacy to political journalism: the power of image and simplicity

Tuesday 9 April 2013, 13:36

About this Blog

A blog for the College of Journalism at the BBC Academy, discussing current technical, ethical, production and craft issues in journalism.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?

Follow us on Twitter

New twitter image News and comment about journalism and interaction with the College:

@BBCCollege

Also from the College

 

Expert tips for finding people online by Paul Myers

Searching for people online

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to shoot video on a smartphone by Marc Settle

Marc Settle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding original stories locally by Hayley Brewer

Hayley Brewer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Work in a multimedia newsroom at BBC London

Multimedia newsroom

Blogroll

Other great places to follow debates about journalism and media:

George Brock: thoughts on journalism past, present and future from City University's head of journalism

The Media Blog: lively and often funny topical detail about UK media output

British Journalism Review: selected pieces from the authoritative quarterly journal

MediaShift: PBS monitoring of the changing media world from a US perspective

Arts & Letters Daily: more interesting ideas and good writing than you will ever have time to read

Alltop Journalism: links to the most recent posts on many journalism blogs

About the BBC: varied BBC blog about all things BBC-ish

Columbia Journalism Review: US academic perspectives

Facebook + Journalists: Facebook's own guide to its use by journalists

Jon Slattery: UK media news from the former deputy editor of Press Gazette

Meeja Law: Judith Townend's guide to media and legal issues 

Roy Greenslade: Guardian blog by the former Mirror editor now journalism prof

Wannabee Hacks: information and experiences from aspiring journalists.