It was #nickcleggsfault

Here’s the third in my series of guest posts for Search Engine Watch:

It was #nickcleggsfault

The British media’s ability to destroy a public figure has in the past been a fearsome and brutal sight. Fall out of favour with several newspapers and your reputation can be pulled apart, day after day, with stories that never quite cross the legal line but twist and select facts to ruin your reputation.

Those who fall foul of only one title can hope for another to take up their cause — even if only out of newspaper rivalry. But woe betides anyone who falls out of favour.

The Times are Changing

The rise of social media gives newspaper readers easy ways to express their unhappiness with how their newspaper is behaving, to find others of like mind, and to impress both the media and commentators with their weight of numbers.

And so it was for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg after the first TV leaders debate. Catapulted into the lead in the opinion polls, he then faced an intensive round of negative, personal, and often misleading stories from newspaper titles owned by people committed to a Conservative Party victory.

Courtesy of the Web, this wasn’t something that his supporters had to take lying down. On newspaper websites, many long comment threads were heavily populated with comments from people criticising the newspaper. The ease of commenting, compared to the time and delay involved in writing to a newspaper, encourages more participation.

The provision of options (e.g., the ability to vote up/down comments) encourages more people to participate. What used to be personal moans about a newspaper instead become collective expressions of angst; all the more powerful because everyone can see how many other people agree with them.

Smear vs. Scrutiny

The usual tone of comment threads on political stories is instinctive and often virulent scepticism of politicians; seeing so many comments defending a politician is extremely rare, but it was seen many times in just a few days.

This action wasn’t happening in isolation. Other parts of the mainstream media also picked up on the story of the controversy over how parts of the press were behaving.

The BBC’s coverage, for example, played a key role in making the Daily Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan take to his site’s blog to defend one of its stories, though even that piece rapidly attracted numerous dissenting comments.

A reason the media picked up on such stories is because they could see how strong the public’s reaction had been, courtesy of signs such as the comments on sites and, of course, Twitter.

#nickcleggsfault Tops Twitter

On Twitter, the most striking reaction was the mocking satire of the #nickcleggsfault hashtag where, in response to the newspaper attempts to blacken Clegg’s reputation, people tweeted away, blaming him for more and more unlikely events, including:

  • Just stubbed my toe #nickcleggsfault (@chickyog) [the first]
  • I’m fairly sure my receding hairline is #nickcleggsfault (@SRFredrick)
  • Nick Clegg was seen two weeks ago poking Eyjafjallajokull with a stick #nickcleggsfault (@urbancyclist) [referring to the volcano whose eruption grounded flights in Europe for several days]
  • #nickcleggsfault Nick Clegg lived in same town as a seriously ill man and never visited him,though he knows he has a spare kidney (@AIannucci)

The meme originated in a simple exchange between two people but quickly grew to be the number one trending U.K. topic on Twitter and one of the most prominent worldwide.

As often in such circumstances, the size of the online expression of opinion, in turn, generated more reports, which in turn via traditional media took the protest to a much wider audience.

That doesn’t strip all power away from newspapers by any means, but it makes it much more of an even fight.

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