Hashtag abuse?

Arse Elektronika 2009

Never has it been so easy to complain or express your displeasure about anything as it is today.

Twitter, e-mail and web forms now mean that you don’t have to stir from your screen to pop a letter in the post box or even pick up the phone and talk to anyone.

At last, the public is empowered.

But is it?

Some facts and figures:

Jan Moir writes an article in the Daily Mail (circulation figures are about 2.2 million daily) which people find offensive, a Twitter hashtagging frenzy ensues and 22 000 people complain to the Press Complaints Commission.

Frankie Boyle makes a joke about the Queen on ‘Mock the Week’, 75 people complain (the viewing figures are about 5 000 000 a week) and then the BBC Trust clears the joke as it didn’t go ‘beyond audience expectations’ for the show.

In Jan Moir’s case, the outcome of the complaints has yet to be revealed, but if only Daily Mail readers complained I make that 1% of its readership who set the process in motion. Of course, that doesn’t include people who were offended by the online version of the story. So, the number of potential readers of the story could be considerably higher and thus the percentage of complainants even lower. Added to the PCC complaints, we even have formal allegations of a hate crime being committed although I can’t find any figures for such complaints to the Police. (Moreover, how many people would have been blissfully unaware of Moir’s article, had her name not been hashtagged to fuck?)

Frankie’s outrage percentage is even lower – just 0.0015% of viewers complained. In fact, the 75 people who complained did so about a repeat of MTW. The first time it was aired the number of complaints was 6 or 0.00012% of viewers.

Anyway, that’s ‘people power’, but I’d argue that ultimately it’s disempowering us.

Look how a few people managed – with the not inconsiderable help of the Daily Mail – to get Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand removed temporarily or permanently from the airwaves. The bandwagon jumpers then managed to hike the number of complaints to 38 000, many of whom freely admitted to not actually hearing Ross say ‘fuck’ on Brand’s late night radio show.

Then there’s the recent ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ ‘Paki’ row. 400 complaints so far – and interesting to note that use of what’s now known as the ‘P word’ garnered far fewer complaints than someone saying ‘fuck’ – although no viewer ever heard the word ‘Paki’ on ‘Strictly’ as it was said off-air.

A few years ago, most people, if offended by such things, would have pissed and moaned a bit and very few would have bothered to take it any further, but now they can.

A recent Daily Telegraph article on the Moir case has some interesting points about the whole subject of empowerment through the internet.

I spoke just now to a well-respected gay journalist whose own anti-Moir tweets have been RT’d all over the place. He did make one interesting point: “You wonder whether the question of free speech has crossed these people’s minds. Is this really a matter for the Press Complaints Commission?”

There’s a difference, I think, between social media users who employ every rhetorical weapon at their disposal to hit back at Moir, and those who want to stop views like hers being expressed in future.

I’m all in favour of criticising Moir for her spite, and especially the twisted leap of imagination that took her from Stephen Gately’s dead body to an argument about the nature of civil partnerships. Not only is that criticism fair, but it has worked: Moir’s reputation is in tatters this evening. But, my God, the social media world harbours some pretty smug and self-righteous individuals. The words “I’m sorry, but you’re not allowed to say that!” are never far from their lips – or, to put it another way, only liberals are allowed to be offensive.

Wise words, I feel, and ones of warning too.

Do we really want freedom of speech jeopardising more than it already is and the power to pass judgment  on what people say appropriated by a few self-righteous types with a Twitter account?

And we’ve all seen how few people it needs to sway a frightened MSM.

Is this really empowering people?

Or is it just one more way in which we actually lose the power to choose for ourselves what we read, see and hear in the media?

3 Responses

  1. Well said. Writing a letter of complaint/displeasure takes a bit of thought and effort. The hashtag craze takes very little of either.

  2. ‘Wise words’ indeed.

    Especially since the anti-Moir Twitter storm was led by Stephen Fry (he of the most followers in the … Galaxy?) et al. Artificial ….. nay, how could you?

  3. Good article.

    It’s also a prime factor in the spread of misinformation from the righteous. A dodgy junk stat of ‘study’ can be re-tweeted millions of times by the gullible if it fits with their personal prejudice. I’ve seen it happen, and it meks me mad, it do’s.

    Just a small addition to the Frankie Boyle bit – a complaint against him was upheld regarding his comment that Rebecca Adlington looked like a reflection in a spoon.

    My immediate thought was how someone can win two swimming gold medals without a spine?

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