Censorship just ain't what it used to be...
I got to the office yesterday morning, unaware from the papers or the TV news, that an oil company (Trafigura) and their PR firm (Carter-Ruck) had secured a gag order against a national newspaper (The Guardian) reporting on a the publication of a damning parliamentary investigation into waste disposal on the Ivory Coast.
But my ignorance to the issue was short-lived. I opened my inbox and found several emails through the eCampaigners Forum list of which I’m a member, relating to the case and it’s impacts on freedom of speech in the UK. Then I logged-into Twitter and found that 4 of the top 10 ‘trending topics’ (words people are ‘Tweeting’ most often) were related to the Trafigura story. Literally thousands upon thousands of Tweets sharing information, outrage and spur-of-the-moment actions people had organised in response to the news.
A combination of curiosity and anger (and a good story to link our new online campaign platform, Louder.org.uk to), had me scrolling through the posts. Links took me to wikileaks pages, past BBC coverage of the situation, and a flash mob – conceived at about midnight the night before – at the Trafigura headquarters.
…And by about lunchtime, the gag order had been removed!
What was happening yesterday morning was a relatively (though not entirely) new kind of campaigning. People were using the connection provided by social media, to share an important message that the press had been made impotent to deliver themselves; in other words, we cut out the middle man!
Carter-Ruck’s attempt to quell a PR inconvenience, turned-out to be the missing ingredient in a full-on PR disaster – made possible in large part by people power and the new ways we share news and ideas via the web. Because Carter-Ruck lacked a fundamental understanding of the power of social media, they walked into a trap that will likely have much wider ramifications for future attempts at preventing the free-sharing of information amongst the public.
The lesson: if you plug the big hole in the dam, an infinite number of smaller weak spots will burst under the added pressure. It’s the physics of censorship in a connected world.
Secrecy just isn’t the option it once was for people, governments and businesses involved in dirty deeds they’d rather the world remained ignorant to. Like the Twitter updates that came out of Iran in the aftermath of their June elections, or the viral videos of monks being shot in the streets of Burma, Trafigura may have been the first – or at least most prominent example – of social media cracking through the chains of censorship in a western democracy.
Hopefully this lesson will resonate with those who might otherwise try to dupe or misinform the public in this (relatively) new era of mass social communications… at the very least, it opens a world of possibility for campaigners looking to use technology to bring about social justice in the world.