Around a hundred people gathered on Monday night at the Innovation Warehouse in London’s Smithfields area, to debate the effect Twitter is having on modern journalism in an event titled Twitter, The Butterfly Effect, and The Future of Journalism. “The media is not the message, the messages are the media,” once wrote David Carr in the New York Times, and it was against this backdrop that the debate kicked off. The assembled panel consisted of Paul Lewis, Special Projects Editor at the Guardian; Anna Doble, Senior Online Producer at Channel4 News; Andrew Walker, founder of Tweetminster; Steve Butterworth, founder of Flumes Media Limited; and Titia Ketelaar, UK correspondent at NRC Handelsblad.
The Guardian’s Paul Lewis started off by arguing that although social media has transformed journalism significantly in recent times, its impact on traditional newsmaking is massively overstated. Although such a statement surely didn’t please the eagerly meta-tweeting audience, there is indeed growing suspicion around news that breaks through Twitter and other similar channels. While there’s little that can be done to stem the flow of false information, a lot can be done to validate and analyze, which is where information professionals should come into play.
Lewis went on to suggest that the future of news reporting lies in the collaboration between traditional and social media, rather than competition, or even substitution between the two. He brought significant examples of recent collaborative efforts, such as the Jimmy Mubenga story, for which the Guardian extensively used Twitter to track down witnesses of the Angolan deportee’s death.
Tuesday afternoon saw Mark Stephens CBE, one of the UK’s leading legal minds and a veteran of WikiLeaks, discuss freedom of speech and censorship at an event called Freedom of Tweet: Censorship, Governments, Marketers & The Law.
The first prickly issue tackled by Mark Stephens was the boundary between the protection of privacy and of freedom of speech (or to Tweet in this case). How can we preserve peoples’ privacy when a platform such as Twitter acts as an open channel for gossip, rumor and, also, facts to flow? Looking back to a famous case of super-injunction in the UK last year, Mark stated that this type of measure, especially when applied to the media of a single country, is bound to be systematically circumvented.
“Impractical law is bad law,” once said Louise Bagshawe, a Conservative MP and writer, and you cannot keep things secret in this day and age because of Twitter and other social networking websites, which are outside British jurisdiction. Mark suggests that when it comes to individuals and companies seeking to protect their privacy (and reputation), legal action is somewhat outdated and ineffective, and a PR campaign is sometimes preferable, as well as considerably cheaper.
The second topic covered by the debate was the role of social media in recent events such as the Arab Spring and the London riots, and the way governments tried in one way or another to assert their control over social networks. Last year, Western public opinion gasped when Middle Eastern regimes completely shut down the internet in order to curb the flow of information in and out of their countries.
At the same time however, the UK government briefly considered closing down social networks in times of crisis–a discussion sparked by the riots that kicked-off in London and soon spread to other parts of England. Mark Stephens argued that even though modern democracies are struggling to manage the speed at which new technologies are being developed, this should not justify any limitation to freedom of speech, which remains a pillar of open and fair societies.