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Social media in society roundup

I'd like to do this regularly, but probably won't, a review of stories and how social media has related to them. I think it would be interesting to chart the impact social media is having on actual society (not just the techie or ed techie one). Here are a few stories over the past month that caught my attention:


Rentokil news release – in March several newspapers ran a story about there being '2,000 bugs in every train carriage'. It was based on "Research by pest controllers Rentokil". Science journalist Ben Goldacre smelt (ahem) a rat and followed it up. Ben chased them up through twitter, email and phone but couldn't get access to the email which had been sent to journalists by Rentokil's PR company. But eventually the truth emerged:

"After a bit of prodding, their PR company Brands2Life explained how
these bugs were counted. No buses were studied, and no trains were
studied either. … contrary to what was said earlier, wherever it came from,
these numbers did not come from measurements and counts, they are
actually based on a “theoretical model”.

…Rentokil’s model for the number of bugs on trains and
buses made some interesting assumptions, and you will have your own
view on whether they make for a reasonable approximation to the real

They assumed, for example, that the railway carriage or bus was left
alone, by itself, in isolation. They assumed this isolated carriage was
helpfully furnished with a plentiful food supply. They assumed that the
ratio of male and female bugs was perfectly optimal for breeding.

They assumed – surprisingly for anyone involved in modelling
populations, surprisingly for anyone, really – that the population of
bugs would be left entirely unchecked, with no external factors to
control the mortality rate. They assumed that the siding or garage was
controlled at a constant temperature all day and night, with no
extremes, they assumed there were no trampling commuters, no cruel
vaccum cleaners, no anything. In fact they assumed there was no
cleaning, ever, and no passengers, ever. This was their model of insect
populations on commuter vehicles.

“On the above basis” Rentokil’s PR explained to me: “it is possible
that the stated numbers of cockroaches and bed bugs/fleas could live on
a train carriage or bus.”"

Anyone who has read Ben Goldacre's Bad Science will be familiar (if depressed) with this kind of PR story being taken up wholesale and unquestioningly by the press. What is interesting here is that listening to Ben on Radio 4 later that week he commented how the use of blogs and twitter allowed him the space to really track these stories down. In a newspaper column it would seem pedantic and picky, and there would be a word limit, but in the social media space he received information and encouragement from his twitter network. This means that, although they'll still try it, PR companies now have a space where they will be held to account, whereas previously no-one would get to hear about their exaggerations, assumptions or lies because of a complicit agreement in the mainstream press. The make it up and don't give a damn party is over.


Nestle – this was the subject of one of those twitter storms that brew up quickly (and I have to say, even when I agree with them, they have the whiff of a pitchfork wielding mob about them). Nestle have a Facebook page, which had been ticking along nicely for a couple of years, with people discussing how they eat their Kit-Kats. Then Greenpeace encouraged people to adapt Nestle logos, to support their anti-Nestle campaign, on the use of palm oil. Cnet covers the story here. People started doing this on the Facebook page and the Nestle representative came in heavy handed demanding they remove the copyright infringing logos, etc. Then it got going on twitter and became a trending topic, generating lots of bad publicity for Nestle.

What this demonstrates is that people will use an organisation's Facebook page as a means of demonstration and protest. The best defence against this is to be a 'nice' company, but even then some people may have differences of opinion. The difficulty then is knowing how to handle them. It's not clear who the Nestle representative was, but it could have been some untrained employee who was just given the page as part of their duty and responded brusquely. Such a response is worse than no response and for organisations the Nestle furore should be one of those case studies on handling new media.

Picture 24

Leader's debate – on 15th April in the UK we had our first televised leaders debate as part of the general election. It is widely acknowledged that the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg came out best in this. From a personal perspective it was the perfect twitter event TV. It wasn't particularly interesting, but the backchannel around twitter brought it to life. While the broadcast analysts were still pondering the big messages #Iagreewithnick was a trending topic, showing that the network had determined the main outcome (which the conventional broadcasters agreed upon over the ensuing few days). A tweet which got retweeted many times summed it up pithily: "What we learnt tonight: Clegg is a damn fine speaker, Cameron met a black man once and Brown agrees with Nick". In line with the first story here, it was also in online media that we saw many of the claims and anecdotes investigated over the coming few days (if you're interested, my colleague Simon Buckingham-Shum did an excellent analysis of the debate using Compendium, which was better than most of the expert analysis we saw).

What was interesting here was the way that humour was used to puncture the claims and careful gestures of the leaders in a way that serious analysis failed to do. For instance, David Cameron came equipped with a range of anecdotes aimed at demonstrating him to be a man of the people. Fridge-magnet then created a Cameron anecdote generator which got passed around on twitter.

Seeing the threat now posed by Nick Clegg, many of the right-wing newspapers turned their focus on him. The most hysterical was a piece from the Daily Mail which claimed Clegg was some form of Nazi supporter. Within a couple of hours the hashtag #nickcleggsfault was trending on twitter as people punctured the pomposity of such articles by blaming any event, from IE6, to Justin Bieber.

So while this won't be the social media election in the way the Obama one was, because the parties themselves aren't using it as effectively, it will be an election in which social media begins to challenge the dominance of traditional media as the means through which we experience it.

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