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Ten theses on Twitter

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Paul Mason | 09:20 UK time, Tuesday, 27 April 2010

[UPDATE: We are now in the middle of the biggest #ukelection "tw-event" so far. #gillianduffy]

[Preamble: I've been spending a lot of time watching the UK election's impact on Twitter. I'm also using it, under editorial guidelines, for my work. I also use it - in a self-censored manner dictated by my professional use of it - as a social networking tool. As a platform it's in its infancy and its utility is being defined with each iteration: Obama, Iranian uprising, UK general election. Following last night's piece on the role of social media in the UK election there's been some debate (on Twitter) about it, with some saying it's all rubbish, others disparaging my piece on an "old git gets wit' da youth" basis. Bearing in mind that a part of Newsnight's audience wishes the whole social media thing would go away, I offer the following totally subjective set of observations. Discuss]

1. Twitter gives potentially perfect realtime feedback to any political event (through realtime searching). The quality of the feedback rises in proportion to the quantity of mentions of the event. Thus, the bigger the event the better our knowledge of its impact.

2. Twitter has the power to amplify the impact of any political event. Because users create their own social network, by choosing who to follow, Twitter has the potential also to distort the impact of any political event, reinforcing existing political opinions and prejudices. Twitter and 24-hour rolling TV news tend to feed off each other during breakthrough-level mass events, to an extent that has not been properly understood.

3. Twitter has more power than any existing web-based network to spread suppressed information, heterodox responses and humorous rejections of the official line. It amplifies the impact of crowding in a more efficient way than blogging (through trackbacks, links, Technorati mentions etc) and Facebook (where group-formation can lead to duplication, and needs users to be more proactive).

4. Though providing a large, viral platform for political propagandists, propaganda on Twitter tends to provoke a cloud of critical, cynical and humorous demolition jobs, lessening its impact and in some cases producing total rejection and even permanent pariah status for the propagandist.

5. The 140 character rule tends to amplify the "false ring" that all propagandist prose contains, thus immediately "branding" spin-attempts as false and quickly branding persistent spinners as untrustworthy. A similar outcome awaits the more genuine, fired-up, activist shouter who quickly loses followers who do not agree with them and thus drops out of the conversation.

6. Twitter, especially when used to auto-update Facebook status, is an effective DIY news publication tool, but relies on the trustworthiness and identity of the writer. It is also becoming an ad-hoc collaboration tool between journalists. e.g. by tweeting, as opposed to texting each other, journalists have been co-ordinating and informing each other's questions at political press conferences, formalising the "collaborative competition" principle of lobby-type journalism.

7. For these reasons, Twitter is, at present a) a tool for realtime qualitative research; b) a reliable, but still legally constrained, tool to evade censorship; c) a sporadically effective means for the mass of people to force behaviour changes in the corporately-owned media; d) a highly-inefficient and ultimately self-defeating vehicle for propaganda; e) an effective transmitter of news; f) a collaborative tool for professional journalists.

8. Since Twitter does not release usage stats, and users' own stats are limited to knowing who follows and retweets their content, the owners have a monopoly of the information that would validate or disprove the above. Twitter would become a more perfect information tool for political discourse if the usage data were to be made completely transparent. In addition it is impossible to interrogate Twitter's history effectively, even with the public data. We would wish to know: a) what are the drivers of critical mass in hashtag trending? b) how quickly propagandists lose followers/ truth-tellers and reliable witnesses gain followers; c) the average size and demographic mix of a user's "followers" and "followed" list; d) the demographic makeup of Twitter users; e) qualitative research with newspaper editors, politicians, dictators, journalists and spin-doctors would identify the role of Twitter in the "we're becoming a laughing stock, let's stop this now"-type decision points.

9. Twitter does not create new trends, ideas or news but amplifies the speed of their adoption, refines their accuracy through collective criticism, reduces the ability of mainstream media and censorship to suppress them and mis-represent them. More users + bigger numbers of followers = more rapid amplification of trends.

10. Thus Twitter (building on blogs and Facebook) is the latest stage in a media revolution which is a) analogous to the arrival of uncensored, cheap newspapers representing heterodox views (cf L'Echo De La Fabrique, the first worker-produced newspaper in Lyon in 1831which led to unexpected political events); b) has the potential to partially or completely neutralise the ability of the corporate media to transmit the dominant ideology. This has implications for the practice of professional journalism, which will need further research.


  • Comment number 1.

    Wow Paul - so much to think about there.

    I don't think that Twitter is just a tool for journalists - all sorts of professionals have been using it, and other instant messaging collaborative tools, for more years than I can remember now. Anyhow, as discussed on here before, who or what is a journalist nowadays?

    There's a lot in your blog to think about and I need to give some thought to the issues you have raised but here is something to be going on with.

    I don't think this story has made it to the national news yet - last Friday the Swansea Evening Post ran a story about a paedophile and posted a photo, apparently, of the person in question. Alas, it was not the said person. According to various sources someone within the Post, possibly a journalist possibly not, went onto Facebook and downloaded a photo of someone with a similar name as the paedophile - alas, the photo they downloaded was of an entirely different and entirely innocent person.

    Is this one consequence perhaps of now living in a Facebook age? The dangers for the totally innocent man being all too apparent.

  • Comment number 2.

    a nation is formed by a common feeling among a group of people. that common feeling will be expressed in all forms of communication be it electronic, books, graffiti, art etc.

    so whatever the media used to express it the key would be to identify the 'common feeling'?

  • Comment number 3.

    Aw, Twitter Ye Not!

    (As a certain Howerd, F. may have said).

    Oh dear.

    In a country where our most popular newspaper is an overgrown comic, our public service broadcaster is "dumbed down" and O-levels have given way to GCSEs, this "grumpy old man" (I'm not sure that the alternative term for a pregnant camel in the main piece would be acceptable on responses) despairs that political debate is debased to the level of the Twitter sound-bite. Short yes, but seldom pithy.

    Paul, your reasoned articles lift you above the average level of the BBC blogger. The quality of comments and debates here, which are driven by rational argument rather than political slanging, reflect that. Twitter has a place, but let's not promote it beyond the tittle-tattle it represents.

    Me, I'll stay with proper discussions in a more appropriate forum. Even if Lurcio pops by from time to time...

  • Comment number 4.

    ''bearing in mind that a part of Newsnight's audience wishes the whole social media thing would go away''

    As embodied by that conservative 'think tank' guy on NN last night.

    Denial or what!

    I think the incumbents collectively have a similar attitude to the Lib dems as embodied by Ed balls last night.

    His lack of engagement with Jeremy on the subject of a hung parliament was extraordinary, the equivalent of hiding under your desk from the bogey man with your ears covered and your eyes closed while gently rocking back and forth.

    Who are these people!

    They just dont get the basic fact that they are elected to enact the will of the people, if the will of the people is a hung parliament they are duty bound to make that work!!

    Those whom are in politics for reasons other than 'to enact the will of the people' will hopefully be exposed by a hung parliament and the imposition of PR long term, they will lose interest as the institution will be organised in a way that will no longer allow them to fulfill their psychological neediness which seems to drive many of them into politics (ed balls comes to mind again).

    I dont think politicians would do very well in pychometric tests employers use, they would probably fall at the first hurdle and into the '' dont touch with a barge pole' file.

    I think it will take another general election to clear them out as there will still be too many needy ego driven types in the House after the election on May 6th for any workable government to be formed. Hopefully they will at least have the decency to realise that, hopefully many politicians in the current crop would not seek re-election and allow normal human beings to have go.

    I have no idea about your observations of 'twitter' but it has at least inspired me to 'give it a go' to see what it is all about.

    Maybe we dont need the houses of parliament anymore, maybe we just need a good algorhythm embedded into a server located on the speakers chair so we can cut out the middle man just get on with the job ourselves via twitter!

    ''The Houses of Twitter''

  • Comment number 5.


    I just registered with Twitter online and have noticed that amongst all the political heavy-weights that you follow, you also follow the tweets of a certain Miss Katie Price (aka Jordan)!

    ('tweets' spelt very carefully btw)

    Very strange!

  • Comment number 6.

    @5 DebtJuggler

    I'm sure Paul's reasons are purely professional.

    After all, didn't Ms Price actually run as an independent candidate in Greater Manchester back in 2001? (I Googled that, BTW, before anyone thinks I have particular interest).

    Nice to see you included her among the "political heavy-weights". Quite appropriate, erm.

  • Comment number 7.


    I think you're being a bit hard on Balls. All the parties are engaging in a ritual dance around the subject of a hung parliament, and trying to play poker with each other. For anybody to divulge very much in a TV interview would be madness, as it only closes down their options - because the media would be the first to get on their backs if they change their mind. That's just the game as it is. Just look at the reaction to Clegg's statement that he wouldn't work with Brown.

    All the parties will say as little as they can about this before the election, except to position themselves in the eyes of the public.

    Personally I'm more interested in the kind of mood music being put out by the Tories - they're campaigning hard against a hung parliament, and they're intransigent about electoral reform. As the most likely result is still a Tory lead, what will they do? Try to form a minority government? Could they form a coalition with the Lib Dems when the latter insist on electoral reform?

    It sounds like desperation, because they know that if there is electoral reform, then they're in trouble.

  • Comment number 8.

    I have so far held back from embracing Twitter.
    I keep abreast (as you clearly do, comment #5) of what I need to know in politics and economics by reading The Economist, Private Eye and the online news from quality dailies' sites. For my sins I watch Newsnight and Channel 4 News when I can.
    I'm not actually interested in what someone can communicate to me or anyone else in 140 characters, except perhaps if something's on fire, there is an impending deluge, or a useful racing tip. The facility to communicate via Twitter does not mean that we should do so. In your number 8 you wish for details of who is using Twitter - well I can tell you it is the young (or wannabe young) who can't seem to think for themselves and who instinctively reach for the mobile when confronted with any challenge. If you have taken the trouble to educate yourself you don't need to reference others to see what to think in shallow message form. I don't get it and I don't care.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Paul,

    Interesting theses. I've been involved in "social media" (just the latest buzzwords for a phenomenon that's been ongoing since dialup BBS days) for over 15 years, and you're echoing some of the thoughts I've had since I've been following the election on Twitter.

    What we're dealing with is effectively a new quantum of information - the tweet - which is more like a synapse firing than anything else I can think of.

    Long ago, I thought it would be highly useful if there was a way to be able to sample the "current sentiment" of particular segments of online communities (BBSes, Usenet, forums etc) but these environments were always too slow to react to rapidly changing information or situations.

    With things like Trendsmap, Trendistic etc coming along, we're starting to see the emergence of tools that can at least indicate where spikes of interest are developing, and that's a brand new paradigm.

    What I think we are witnessing now is how easily particular memes can develop amongst small groups and rapidly propagate out to the 'masses' due to already established strong connections between key nodes in the network (in Twitter's case, the nodes are people of course).

    So if a tweet is akin to a synapse firing, then sufficient repetition and rebroadcasting can eventually lay down a more permanent pattern which serves to guide future behaviour.

    Of course the overall mind (that of the whole Twittersphere) is utterly fragmented and has multiple personalities but sometimes out of the noise a new idea manages to make itself heard.

    As a disruptive technology, Twitter is far more fascinating than the chattering nonsense it's often portrayed as by those who don't 'get' it.

  • Comment number 10.

    I usually use twitter for work, to glean info and useful URLs, but while the election unfolds it is proving pretty good value as entertainment too..

    In a very short space of time it is proving a top numptie filter catching bozos.

    Was Sally Bercow another GOAT or wannabee GOAT involved with the Digital Economy Act by any chance?

    Maybe they need some under 15 or 50+ year olds to explain this new-fangled stuff to these thrusting young masters and mistresses of the halls of Westminster?

    Or, at the very least, the value of engaging brain before hitting the 'net if one is keen on staying long in public office these days.

    Bland, dear, bland! Get feisty and when you try to have a snark at an opponent, they will have your number (and own personal history, in writing, cached and archived).

    But seriously, THIS is the calibre of person who thinks they are fit to lead? After all that has gone down... in just the last few weeks!

    And HOW MANY other pols and reporters and news editors not a million miles from, er, here, who have had to get shredding sharpish (behind ed. guidelines a tad?) as a consequence of their awesome grasp of balanced views and new media.

  • Comment number 11.

    #7 '' i think you are being abit hard on balls''

    Ou contraire! I hope I am being hard on all of them, it just so happens that Ed was the most easily available example of the common characteristics displayed by many.

    In my view, all Ed had to do was explain the situation the same way you did to avoid such criticism.

    What Ed should have said is that he is happy to find constructive ways to work together with whichever party has the moral mandate to form agovernment in line with share of the vote in the event of a hung parliament to best reflect the will of the people.

    He should have gone on to explain his evasiveness as it not being possible to provide the details of that at the moment because we do not know what the will of the british people is yet. In the meantime he proposes to continue to push the agenda he thinks is in the best interests of the british people to help the british people reach an informed decision.

    That would have been a suitably humble, measured and respectful response consumate with his existing position and the future position of trust he seeks to be appointed to by the british people to serve the british people.

    What he clearly could not stomch from his egocentric 'party first' driven perspective was the prospect of Labour coming third and being second fiddle to a Lib dem led coalition ( for example).

    I just got the feeling that he would rather take the country into chaos than entertain that humbling (but morally correct) position.

    That is why I got so onto his case.

    But in my book everyone has the chance to redeem themselves, I would be delighted if, in the event of a hung parliament, Gordon and Ed and the like embrace the will of the people and act accordingly.

    What do you think the chances of that are?

  • Comment number 12.

    Twitter does offer an enormous resource, in many different ways and on many different subjects. We're aiming to crowd-source tweeps' opinions on and represent it constituency-by-constituency on a map of the UK. That can show the collective mind of Twitter and also demonstrate how that can be harvested.

  • Comment number 13.

    One can only assume that Katie Price is busy twittering about the downgrading of Greek bonds to junk status even as I type?

    The BBC News homepage was interesting a few minutes ago - headline about the UK about to face cuts worse than the 1970s, above that headline a strap flashing that Greek bonds are now junk.

    Seems like we have lost the G from the PIIGS and the P could be next.

    Banks going bust are so last year. This season's economic turmoil is best measured in bankrupt countries.

    I wonder how exposed British banks are to Greek debt?

    Oh dear, that might mean more QE, more bank bailouts and more multi-million Pound bonuses for bank workers!

  • Comment number 14.

    What #9 akhen3sir said.

  • Comment number 15.

    By Thursday, hours before the final leaders' debate, we could well have yet another global financial crisis kicking off?

    One report has Germans refusing to accept Euros with any of the PIIGS' serial numbers - apparently they are checking them and then demanding Euros with German serial numbers. Surely not?

  • Comment number 16.


    A link posted on the main NN blog...

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    'While the Conservatives have invested in social media in the run-up to the election as a way of engaging new voters, Cameron concedes he does not 'get' social media.

    In the interview he also admits he is not on Facebook or Twitter and while he realises the opportunity politically, personally he does not want "to be 'poked' or whatever it is".'


    I must admit, I wouldn't like the idea of being poked either!

  • Comment number 17.

    15 tawse57

    Good point...but such subjects are 'verboten' during a febrile election campaign!

    'Never let the facts get in the way of a good argument' they say!

    Did you see Robert Chote of the IFS on NN tonight?

    It would seem that the acronym that the incumbent government will dread more than the IMF!

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi Paul,

    point 8 sums it up quite nicely, Twitter is proprietry, Twitter is not open, Twitter can be gamed and Twitter can be bought.

    Twitter is a good thing ?

  • Comment number 19.

    NNwebteam 27/4 #44: At 11:39pm on 27 Apr 2010, barriesingleton wrote:


    There must be a term for a state that allows free speech and demonstration, but ensures their impotence. What about a Democastry?

    A million of us marched against the war. Tony ignored us. IDS said 'vote' to his pathetic hundreds and LO! there was (and still is) war.

    Incidentally, freedom of speech, on this forum, is open to curtailment on a whim. Have you read the rules Gnu? Blogdog has no favourites.

    I think you might be confusing democracy with hypocrisy.

    # 45. At 00:11am on 28 Apr 2010, you wrote:

    hey barry, #44:

    imagine a UK where twittering was as prevalent as it is now, going to war by ignoring the *enormous* public opposition to this poodling to the insane right-wing Americans in the White House would have been vastly less likely.

    and the discussion enabled between Citizens as equals by such forums as this, where deep discussion and analysis are possible, open to be read by the entire Society and easily distributed, have also had their own long-term effects.

    with twittering, the deliberate propaganda put out on all media channels could have been dissected and discussed by normal citizens - and individual MPs targeted, as well as the obvious lack of choice.

    the ability to transmit information easily, as equals, is one of the absolute basic rights Democracy must have. If it wasn't for the internet, we would still be reliant upon media Owners such as Rupert Murdoch for information about the World. Why are none of the big 3(£) parties arguing for limits upon media ownership, to protect our Democracy they are so "proud" of?

    as for this blog: i am free to go elsewhere, if i am subject to curtailment. And on the other hand, i would prefer to be warned if i were about to cross legal lines. :)

    "I think you might be confusing democracy with hypocrisy."

    the hypocrisy is weakening, and Democracy is strengthening.

    .....IMHO. ;)


    sorry for spamming, seemed appropriate once i'd finished reading this. You must feel like you're on the crest of a wave, sometimes, Paul. Good time to be alive, hey? :)

    Peace and Love :Wub:

  • Comment number 20.

    oh, and i don't twitter, yet. :)

  • Comment number 21.

    9. At 5:17pm on 27 Apr 2010, akhen3sir wrote:
    What we're dealing with is effectively a new quantum of information - the tweet - which is more like a synapse firing than anything else I can think of.
    Does this mean that it is the information equivalent of high speed share trading. The opposite of think before you open your mouth.

  • Comment number 22.

    #17 DebtJuggler

    Oh, I don't know - judging by the TV News headlines this morning the drop in global markets re the Greek junk status is now being reported.

    Stage 2 of the global economic crisis is now getting into full swing it seems. Any moment now I am expecting the BBC and Sky to wheel on the obligatory estate agent to tell us all is well in the World. The UK, after all, is different.

    Are flying PIIGS crashing worthy of a twitter?

  • Comment number 23.


    Given the latest news on comodities prices, oil company profits, bond write downs and social unrest (it is going to be abusy year for you).

    I decided to revisit the predictions I made on this blog at the beginning of the year as copied below.

    How do you think I did thus far?

    I would be grateful if any hedge fund who used them would donate a small percentage of thier profits to the following adress:


    25. At 2:14pm on 31 Dec 2009, you wrote:

    Making socio economic predictions for 2010 is a bit like nailing jelly to the wall at the moment. In the absence of any 'experts' why dont we have a go so we can compare against Paul's Tuesday night guests.

    Likely driving underlying factors are:

    Sovereign debt..keeping the lid on it. The boys in the IMS will have another busy year.

    Continuance of the transfer of prosperity from west to east.

    Tentative recovery in some economies will be stifled by oil security of supply concerns (Iran)/ middle east stability generally / rising prices to meet demand generally.

    Re-emergence of Islamic extremism (I think they have been re-grouping of late)

    Net result:

    Asia will continue to do ok generally as will countries with a varied comodities base (not 1 trick ponies)combined with reasonable governance (australia / Brazil)

    The west will have a turbulent time, there will be some high profile corporate collapses post christmas. Budgets will be cut, there will be strikes as living standards are eroded and taxes raised, this will be against a backdrop of increased instability overseas stretching security.

    Therefore invest in the east, varied comodities economies and defence, take short positions in western stockmarkets (especially travel, luxury items and anything reliant on oil) towards the end of the first quarter.

    Off you go then Hedge funds, go and make a few Billion.

  • Comment number 24.

    Gillian Duffy For PM!

  • Comment number 25.

    Goodbye Gordon - goodbye labour (i really must get a twitter account - sorry paul).

  • Comment number 26.

    Elderly lady who describes herself as a lifelong Labour supporter questions Brown on economy seemingly applying some sound Rochdale Northern logic to the state of the economy... and gets accused of being a bigot by the Primeminister.

    Shows the complete and utter contempt, IMPO, that so-called New Labour have for the ordinary, decent hard-working people of this country.

    The twitters, the instant messangers, the blogs, etc, are fully of sympathy for this lady and complete disgust with Brown.

    If he had not blown it already then he has now.

    I do hope that lady has family/friends close at hand as she is clearly very distressed. I hope it does not have an negative affect on her health.

  • Comment number 27.

    Just to back up how fast this stuff happens - the video is already up on Youtube less than 30 minutes since Brown called her a bigot.

  • Comment number 28.

    @Kit Green #21

    Yup, kind of. It's the emergent behaviour that's the interesting part though. Complex systems based on very many interactions between suitably small packets of data, influenced by human activity, can exhibit a 'group mind' facility.

    It's worth keeping an eye on what trends provoke the typical lemming reaction and which provoke something different.

    The #bigotgate hashtag is a perfect example. Depending upon what this woman actually said, 'bigot' may or may not be an entirely valid label for her. The overwhelming proportion of tweets are anti-Brown right now as a result, but there are some thoughtful ones scattered around too. The thoughtful ones indicate nodes that may be worth watching.

  • Comment number 29.

    emergent networks are always interesting - but also to be careful of. Immediate reactions to an event may be based upon incorrect (deliberate or accidental) information, and the mass-mind effect can amplify that tremendously.

    think 9/11, before those who question 'The Line' went to work (and still now long afterwards), there was deliberately caused hysteria that would have been a Twitter-Tsunami. Granted, 9/11 was a carefully planned and long orchestrated 'false-flag' attack (the speed the 'Homeland Security' bills were created and passed *screams* that), and most events will not fall into that category. But until the network gains an intellectual depth, then it is still worrying 'gut-reactive', that can react and cause great harm to innocents, and come far too rapidly to wrong conclusions.

    "The thoughtful ones indicate nodes that may be worth watching."

    and from those comes long term development. :)

  • Comment number 30.

    Isn't 'Group Mind' what Murdoch is trying to create and just the BBC [and Paul's Blog] that stands in his way?

  • Comment number 31.


    yes. And also the People.

    murdoch should be left in a room with a very good business computer game, where he can happily "Gain Control Of The World's Media" without actually harming anyone except inhabitants of Tron.

    'Group Mind' is also the effect of a bunch of people arguing and coming to an agreement amongst themselves, it does not have to be 'top-down'.

    as i said however, even 'bottom-up' can have its side-effects until the networks are stable through depth.


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