Comment: Twitter's battle between censorship and transparency

The use of Twitter in court shows its power to bring transparency. But the reaction to the BBC and Richard Littlejohn also reflects its desire to censor.

By Ian Dunt

Twitter strikes me as left wing. I haven't conducted a proper survey. I have nothing to demonstrate it except my experience, which is less than considerable. But the site's pivotal moments, its days of group momentum, seem to come consistently from left/liberal causes.

Last year we saw the 'We Love NHS' campaign, the pounding of Trafigura after Carter Ruck tried to gag the Guardian's coverage of the firm and the campaign against Jan Moire, a Daily Mail columnist who made some questionable points about Stephen Gately's death and its connection with his sexuality.


Similarly, the two biggest stories of the last few months - the student protests and Wikileaks - have seen Twitter launch into overdrive.

Why is this? Perhaps it's simply a reflection of that ago-old stereotype, whereby the young are always more radical than the old. As a new technology, it is picked up by the young quicker than the middle-aged. Or perhaps it's a false result, a product of activists and lefties being more vocal than the majority of users. After all, the trending rules were changed not for #dayx3, but for Justin Bieber.

Or perhaps the advantages Twitter grants its users for free, such as instant information transferral and mass communication, are specifically useful to those outside the establishment. After all, instantaneous information transferral is a billion dollar industry. Anyone in the City will tell you how expensive those Bloomberg docks are. Most corporations and governments have intranets of internally available information - that's where those diplomatic cables from the US originally come from. Law enforcement agencies also have live data mapping, with resources pinpointed on commonly-shared maps.

And now protestors have it too. This map was used by demonstrators on the day of the last student demonstration. It's very rudimentary, but notice the way demonstrators were using technology that has previously only be available to the authorities. Notice also how easy it would be to tag video, audio, information, or pictures to the map. Alternatively, geo-tagging tweets with information about police presence, combined with a designated hashtag, would have a similar effect.

There are other advantages to activism being thrown up by Twitter, Watch the way in which UK Uncut has blossomed, in a tiny number of weeks, from a few people in a pub to a mass programme of loosely coordinated direct action events across the country. Theoretically, there's nothing being achieved here that couldn't have been done with town hall posters, letters and a few phone calls, but the ability of Twitter to communicate with a staggering number of people instantly allows it to galvanise popular movements - and then coordinate them - with a speed and efficiency which would have been unthinkable just three years ago.

The ability to coordinate without a structured leadership is another profound benefit, particularly for the left, which traditionally enjoys fighting itself more than it does its enemies. Look, for instance, at the attacks on NUS president Aaron Porter from student activists.

Similarly, participants are encouraged in a way which can't quite be quantified by the way that Twitter offers them an alternative media presence, outside of the mainstream agenda. When the standard backlash against the student protests came from the broadcast media and the newspapers, activists had somewhere to turn: themselves. Twitter offers a self-perpetuating narrative: somewhere to discuss events with people who share your views and prejudices. Before it, activists had to tune into Sky, just like everyone else, to hear newsreaders brand them thugs. Increasingly, it's just water off a duck's back to them. They can afford to switch the TV off.

Meanwhile, the site's ability to offer transparency continues apace. In a suitably ironic confluence of stories, the judge during Julian Assange's bail hearing allowed Twitter in court. Two days later, during the appeal, it was barred. This morning, Lord Judge handed down interim rules allowing it in court. Previously opaque structures are slowly emerging blinking into the daylight. The vestiges of tradition left in the UK and being slowly creaked open.

But the technological advantages of Twitter for the left - instant information transfer and communication - have also meant that it must now stare at itself in the mirror. This ability to galvanise opinion, to build momentum, has revealed a desire to censor those who challenge the left's perspective. Take the case of Jody McIntyre, who claims he was dragged from his wheelchair by police twice during the last student protest. You can see a video apparently showing the second occurrence here.

In the wake of the protest, he was interviewed by Ben Brown at the BBC and was the subject of an unpleasant comment piece by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. Both were subject to a mass campaign encouraging Twitter users to complain to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The comparison is brutally unfair. Brown's interview was, to my mind, entirely routine. Some of his questions are mildly absurd. One does wonder, for instance, what possible action McIntyre could have engaged in to warrant the reaction and Brown's constant efforts to find one ("There's a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police") don't come across as particularly sensible. But the alternative to Brown's style was to treat disabled people like sub-humans, patronise them with a GMTV-style interview while everyone else gets the Paxman treatment. This was an entirely legitimate interview in which McIntyre was able to get his point across, which he duly did, with considerable clarity and passion.

More justifiable was the reaction to Littlejohn whose awful humour at the case showed how low many journalists will go to in their hatred of protest. The use of a Little Britain cartoon didn't help. But even here, the censorship brigade on Twitter got it wrong.

If they were to succeed in their attack on Littlejohn, then they should ask themselves who comes next. By some considerable and not irrelevant irony, the Daily Mail is usually at the forefront of efforts to censor comedian Frankie Boyle. Boyle, who personally I rather like, is currently in trouble with the tabloid press for making a joke about Katie Price's disabled son. I can't imagine many of the Twitter users calling for Littlejohn's silence would jump on the Mail's campaign against Boyle.

Right and left both have problems with censorship, because both are forced to live in a society where people get to, by and large, say what they like. All political forces have proponents foolish enough to confuse offence with illegality. But with the left having such a dominant role in Twitter, it is they who must face their political demons first.

Will this remarkable new piece of technology be a force to boost protest and tear open dark corners, bringing activism and transparency to previously sheltered institutions? Or will it be used to censor, to shut-up, to lash out? By the end of 2011 well have a better idea.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Speakers Corner are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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