John Mair demonstrates how to really not get it

I’m sure everyone’s fed up of the Jan Moir debacle that’s been occupying the UK Twittersphere for the last week, but I was made rather cross by this ill-judged and misinformed article by John Mair on yesterday.

For those of you blessed enough not to have heard about the Jan Moir/Daily Mail controversy, suffice it to say that she wrote a hateful and homophobic article about Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, who died of a previously undiagnosed heart condition. Moir’s piece caused uproar amongst the online community, particularly on Twitter, causing some advertisers to remove their ads from the page and forcing Moir to apologise (in a manner of speaking). There have since been acres of print and pixel devoted to unpicking it all.

One such piece by John Mair, a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University, makes a number of mistake that I think are themselves worth unpicking.

Mair’s first mistake is to say that “blogosphere went mad seeking revenge”. Lots of people were very cross with Moir’s piece, but to dehumanise people’s reactions by lumping them all together as “the blogosphere” and then to trivialise the reaction as “going mad” and “seeking revenge” is to mischaracterise the entire episode. It implies that everyone who reacted to Moir’s piece somehow lost their sense of proportion and overreacted in a little moment of insanity. This is rather insulting – people were justifiably cross with Moir and the Mail and, whilst people were vociferous, to characterise them as seeking revenge is hyperbolic.

Mair’s second mistake is in his second paragraph where he implies that celeb-Twitterers Stephen Fry and Derren Brown organised the protests on Twitter and Facebook. That’s also not true – this wasn’t a crowd, baying for blood and lead onwards by the Twitter elite. Stephen and Derren were, like everyone else reacting to a rapidly spreading meme. There was no movement and they did not organise anything. They just helped the meme along. (It’s important to note that memes are like ocean waves – they don’t move the water itself, they move through the water.)

A little later on, Mair asks, “So how democratic are these manifestations of the virtual mob?”.

Ok, so what exactly is “democracy”? The dictionary on my Mac says:

democracy |di?mäkr?s?|
noun ( pl. -cies)
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives : capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world.
• a state governed in such a way : a multiparty democracy.
• control of an organization or group by the majority of its members : the intended extension of industrial democracy.
• the practice or principles of social equality : demands for greater democracy.

Looking at that list, none of those really apply to the phenomenon we observed. There was no organisation and no group ergo no members, unless – and I think this is where Mair gets confused – unless you label the people who complained, post hoc, as a de facto group that must therefore have organisers. That’s a rationalisation that doesn’t hold water – anger with Moir spread through Twitter organically: as one person Tweeted their disgust, others found out about the article and then expressed their own feelings. There was nothing orchestrated about it and the concept of ‘democracy’ cannot and should not be applied. A spontaneous expression of a shared opinion is not a democracy.

What about “mob”?

mob |mäb|
a large crowd of people, esp. one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence : a mob of protesters.
• (usu. the Mob) the Mafia or a similar criminal organization.
• ( the mob) the ordinary people : the age-old fear that the mob may organize to destroy the last vestiges of civilized life.

Was there a mob? There certainly were a large number of people involved, but were they a crowd? Were they grouped together in one spot and intent on causing trouble or violence? I think it would be stretching the definition of ‘mob’ too far to use it to describe the people upset by Moir’s homophobia.

Mair then tells us that the internet is a double-edged sword, something which is undoubtedly true, although it is more accurate to describe the internet as neutral – neither good nor bad, and therefore capable of being used for good or bad. But the tone of his assertion implies that actually, he thinks the internet is baaaaad.

Now we get to the meat of the wrongness of this piece. Mair compares the expression of disgust at Moir with the hounding of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

It can lead to interactivity and enrichment but it can also lead to bullying by keystroke. The zenith of that was the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand row in the autumn of 2008 but nowadays broadcasters, especially the BBC, are facing ‘crowd pressure’ from internet groups set up for or against a cause or a programme; they are an internet ‘flash mob. With the emphasis, maybe, on the ‘mob’.

When Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand rang up the veteran actor Andrew Sachs on October 18 2008 and were disgustingly obscene to him about his grand-daughter, that led to a huge public row on ‘taste,’ mainly stoked by the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.

Fuel was added to the fire through comments by the Prime Minister. The ‘prosecuting’ virtual group was the editorial staff of the Mail newspapers and its millions of readers in Middle England. In support of the ‘Naughty Two’, more than 85,000 people joined Facebook support groups. Many, perhaps most, had never heard the ‘offensive’ programme. Just two had complained after the first broadcast.

The BBC was forced after a public caning to back down, the director-general yanked back from a family holiday to publicly apologise, Brand and his controller resigned and Ross was suspended from radio and television for three months. The virtual mob smelt blood: it got it.

The Ross/Brand incident bears no resemblance to the Moir incident. Ross & Brand’s stupidity would have gone unnoticed by the vast majority of people had the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday (and a variety of other newspapers) not brought it to their attention and demanded that ‘something be done’ – that something, of course, being complaints to the BBC.

There was no “‘crowd pressure’ from internet groups” nor was there any sort of “internet ‘flash mob'”. There was only pressure brought to bear by the tabloids via the medium of the internet. The protest was not grass roots, it was orchestrated (oh the irony!) by the Mail and Mail on Sunday. Mair knows this, as he explicitly states it, yet still he uses this example as illustrative of the awfulness of the internet and the propensity of internet users to mobbish behaviour. Sorry, Mair, I call bullshit.

Mair then goes on to cite another irrelevant example, the protests over Jerry Springer; the Opera:

Fifty five thousand Christians petitioned the BBC to pull it from the schedules because of its profanity and alleged blasphemy. They engaged in modern guerilla warfare tactics to try to achieve their aim. Senior BBC executives had to change their home phone numbers to avoid that pressure. That campaign did not get a ‘result’. If Facebook had been in full flow then, the 55,000 may well have been 555,000 and the result very different.

The offended Christians were, again, organised. And again, it was not a spontaneous outpouring of dissatisfaction. They did not use “modern guerilla warfare tactics”, they used the communications tools open to them at the time, just like everyone else does. They didn’t succeed in getting the opera pulled, perhaps because the BBC felt that, in this case, the claims of offence were out of proportion. Would they have been successful had they been able to use Facebook? I would hope not, but the BBC’s spine does go through soft phases.

Mair concludes with:

This is activism by the click. It needs no commitment apart from signing up on a computer. It gives the illusion of democracy and belonging to a movement whereas in reality is it membership of a mob, albeit a virtual one? Is this healthy for democracy and media accountability or not?

Here Mair lays his biases bare. He may as well have said, “I just don’t like the whole idea of the audience having opinions and having a way to express those opinions. The fact that lots of people seemed to agree – quite independently – about how awful Jan Moir’s article was puts the fear of god up me, because suddenly I am accountable not just to my paymasters, but to my audience. Directly. And who’s going to protect me when these scary people with opinions come knocking at my door? Wasn’t it so much nicer in the old days, when the audience couldn’t answer back?”

Groups of people on the internet who all express a similar opinion are not de facto mobs. Expressing an opinion can be a part of democracy, but democracy is not simply the expression of opinion.

Mair’s piece is risible. He fails to understand Twitter, sees this as an opportunity to demonise the internet and draws false comparisons between unrelated incidents. Frankly, the media’s buggered if this is the prevalent attitude in our universities.

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