Just how much influence does social media give the people?

If 2008 was the year of Facebook, then 2009 was the time Twitter came of age. And since both are now used in high-profile campaigns, such as President Obama’s bid for the White House, it’s fair to say that social media is here to stay.

But how much influence do social networks actually have? Are they great for gossip, or agents for real change? I’d say that the last week has brought us one step nearer to finding out.

Let’s cast our minds back…

A storm is a-brewing

It began on Monday night with a headline: “Guardian gagged from reporting parliament”.  

In case you missed this one, law firm Carter-Ruck issued The Guardian with a gagging order to prevent it from reporting a question that was due to be asked in Parliament later in the week. Predictably, the use of the outdated print regulation outraged social media users and both #Carter-Ruck and #trafigura (the oil trading firm it was representing) were soon ‘trending’ on Twitter, resulting in a slick of negative publicity for both firms.

Carter-Ruck hastily withdrew the gag.

Clever tactic or convenient result?

In my mind, this was the clearest example to date of how new media can trample over previously stalwart conventions through sheer ferocity. While many newspapers disappointingly failed to report the contribution that Twitter made to The Guardian’s victory in this case, editor Alan Rusbridger was quick to dish out credit the following day:  

@arusbridger: Thanks to Twitter/all tweeters for fantastic support over past 16 hours! Great victory for free speech.

Nowhere to hide

The Guardian gagging was only the start. Thursday saw YouTube chosen as the online venue to expose a Transport for London employee’s shameful behaviour towards a commuter.

The employee in question was caught on camera exclaiming “sling him under a train”, after an argument with a passenger. Twitter was abuzz with calls for the man to be fired with immediate effect. The protest was so persuasive that Boris Johnson waded into the row by tweeting:

@MayorOfLondon: Appalled by the video. Have asked TfL to investigate urgently. Abuse by passengers or staff is never acceptable.

Word on the street is that the disgraced TfL employee has already been suspended.

Action speaks louder than words

The third instance of the power of social networks last week was, in many ways, similar to the TfL example.

The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir wrote a disgraceful article about Stephen Gateley’s death which led to over 21,000 protests to the Press Complaints Commission. The online version of Moir’s article had received 479 objectionable comments when I last checked on Friday afternoon. A quick glance this morning revealed that the Daily Mail has since removed all comments and opted for the rather unsatisfactory: “We are no longer accepting comments on this article.”

Whether Moir retains her column beyond the end of the week remains to be seen.

Power to the people?

This week has shown that, if people use social media to swing behind a cause, they can effect real change. But in one respect the new media are no different to the old – if a cause doesn’t capture the popular imagination, it won’t get the publicity it needs. It’s also as easy as ever to confuse popularity with being right, which gives social media the potential to be the driving force for witch-hunts – although all the examples above led to very positive outcomes.

Nowhere to hide

There’s also another question that needs answering. Do you think online reputation management could have saved the TfL employee and Moir, or has the nation’s seemingly insatiable appetite for social media made it too difficult for anyone to control an online profile? If you have any thoughts on this, please leave me a comment.