Trending: The infuriating future of spam... 'twam'?

  • 15 November 2013
A can of spam

Political parties and companies are using sophisticated tools to create their own trends in social media. Has spam entered a new era - and should we start calling it "twam"?

Last week, some Twitter users experienced a bizarre moment of deja vu. The UK's Labour Party was allowed by more than 800 supporters - including famous comedians and social activists - to take over their accounts. Using software called Thunderclap, it flooded timelines with a tweet posted from each account: "It's time to deal with David Cameron's cost of living crisis. Let's freeze gas and electricity bills."

This kind of thing is starting to happen more often, says Finn Brunton, author of a book about the history of digital spam. From Mexico to Pakistan to Indonesia, political parties and marketing firms are either using software or encouraging hundreds of people to tweet the same words or hashtags - often for money. The aim is to dominate the Twitter conversation - if briefly - but Brunton calls the strategy "fundamentally perverse".

The canned pre-cooked meat Spam was introduced to the UK in 1941, and the term was first used by early adopters of the computer in the 1970s. "Many of the people who had access to computer networks were graduate students, mostly in the United States", says Brunton - "which is to say geeks, and geeks everywhere have always loved Monty Python".

Monty Python's Flying Circus, a British comedy, famously included a sketch of a post-war restaurant in which every dish on the menu included "Spam". Inspired by this, US computer programmers wrote code to write junk messages using the word spam - and the term stuck.

So are we now seeing a new type of spam for the social media age? "Twam" is a new word used by the online tool Twictionary, but has not yet made it to the Oxford English Dictionary. Thunderclap, the firm used by Britain's Labour Party, says that spamming is not the intention and the company encourages its clients to send messages that are "thoughtful, well-crafted" and "about topics that matter". The Labour Party told the BBC that 4.5 million people saw their Thunderclap.

Reporting by Mukul Devichand

More on the history and future of spam on Trending on BBC World Service at 14:50 GMT on Saturday