Twitter, trust and a silly tune…

Twitter made for interesting reading on Tuesday night. The News of the World phone hacking scandal, which lurched from grubby to sinister in one afternoon, dominated the trending with Rebekah Brooks and News International both high on the UK list.

Top spot, however, was claimed (no doubt reluctantly) by Cher Lloyd. The urchin-like former X Factor contestant’s debut single Swagger Jagger had gone live on YouTube, amassing an instant 47,963 dislikes. Sorry – having sat through it 47,964. The tune isn’t actually that bad, but in the new media landscape once a trend gets going…

Twitter also chimed to the sound of Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, whose news aggregation site has done much to shape the modern media terrain in which we all now amble. The grande dame of online content was in town to launch the UK version of the web-based newspaper, which was recently acquired by AOL for $315million. The front page of the launch edition splashed with a piece on Brooks and her increasingly nefarious employer. A metaphor for the online attack on print? Why not… but also a cracking news day on which to launch a paper.

The first edition was accompanied by a debate at Millbank on Wednesday evening, in which La Huffington was joined by Alistair Campbell, Jon Gaunt, Celia Walden, Shami Chakrabarti and, bizarrely, Kelly Osbourne, the latter offering shots of comic genius – “why should anyone pay for the news?” with mixers of the surreal – “are you journalists frightened by Twitter?”

Trust proved the evening’s major theme. Does the public still trust the media? Is citizen journalism more reliable than traditional reporting? Dare we eat the dill and prawn canapés?

Throughout the debate, a Twitter feed ran in the background reminding us that in this not so brave new world anyone could say anything and everyone has a say. As the chat progressed, the upside to all this content was made clear. Blogs and social networks offer access to information and commentators that you may not have otherwise heard of. Agreed – I’m not sure how I would have found people like Sam Harris, Slavoj Žižek, Max Blumenthal, P Z Myers et al had it not been through Twitter or YouTube. Also, the interconnection of media enables you to access great swathes of information from a single source, while opinion either individual or grouped has never been easier to disseminate. This all works for me. However, there seems to be a downside and one that was only briefly touched upon at the gathering.

Witness the US experience in which an increasingly diverse media appears to have exacerbated the polarisation of political views, with left and right entrenched like the soldiers facing each other across the Somme. There are, of course, other factors at work beyond the Atlantic, but the fact that individuals and groups now have the ability to publish via blogs and social networks seems to confer a legitimacy to anyone with a computer, regardless of how fringe their views. Also, if every available opinion is out there, is it not instinctive for most consumers to see out information that reinforces their pre-existing opinions?

During the debate, the proprietor suggested that in the US distrust towards old media may be due to the experience of Iraq, when newspapers were used by the administration to sell a war on shoddy information. Fair enough, but there also seems to be a climate in the US whereby any media outside a persons’ core network raises suspicion.

Covering a political conference in Washington earlier this year (for a UK paper) I found myself constantly being asked by attendees which news organisation I worked for. This was nearly always followed by the question “are they left or are they right?” Even then, I was occasionally further tested with questions about my own personal stance on a range of issues, including one exchange with a woman who demanded to know my feelings on the legacy of The Gipper. All this before she’d even consider answering one of my questions. It was like having to audition for your own interview. And these weren’t extras from Deliverance splashed with mud from a tractor pull, but highly intelligent, highly articulate and very politically aware activists from every state in the union.

To quote the creator of Craig’s List, “trust is the new black”. And trust it seems is in very short supply at the moment, whether that’s potential presidential candidates mocking the “lame stream media”, or Tweeters in the UK campaigning for advertisers to pull cash from the News of the World. How this plays out in both countries is anyone’s guess. Still, the new media age is here to stay and the benefits to consumers (and journalists) seem to far out way the pitfalls. As such, the arrival of The Huffington Post in the UK should be a welcome addition to the media firmament, and one that will hopefully prove as popular here as it has stateside.

Twitter made for equally interesting reading on Wednesday night. The phone hacking story rumbled on thanks to a piece by Peter Oborne, topped only by the latest sacking on The Apprentice. As was pointed out at the debate, “self-expression is the new entertainment”. And with the exception of the unfortunate Cher Lloyd, whose dislikes had now risen to 57,456, it appears we’ll all be entertaining for a long time yet…

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.

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