Sunday, 12 December 2010

News on Twitter: What I learned from the Topshop protest

Yesterday, 30 or so protesters flash-mobbed the Topshop store in the Arndale centre to demonstrate against alleged tax avoidance by the company.

The protest happened to descend on the shop as I was walking past. This isn't an event which normally happens everyday, so naturally, I snapped a picture and posted it on Twitter. Blame my brief tenure in the magazine industry for that.

Within three hours, the photograph had been viewed over 1,000 times. The Twitter update which included the picture had been retweeted over 40 times (most significantly by the Granada Reports and Channel 4 News Twitter feeds) and the photograph had been published alongside the news story on the Manchester Evening News and, later, the BBC website.

The incident (while hyperlocal and incredibly small-scale; this wasn't Watergate being broken on Twitter) did provide an interesting insight into how the social network is being used as a news channel. It also highlighted a few disturbing things about the site which I hadn't considered before. As ever, please drop a comment below if you feel the desire to...

Twitter as a news-sourcing channel

I'm told that journalists aren't using Twitter in the correct way. In this instance, I will disagree.

The BBC were ridiculously quick to get in touch and their Have Your Say account had @ mentioned me 30 minutes after posting the photograph (their Twitter feed suggests a similar level of efficiency for other breaking stories on the site)

Ten minutes after their @ mention, I was talking to a researcher from BBC News.

Ten minutes after that, I was giving a quote to a staff writer for a news article.

So, within 50 minutes, the organisation had obtained all the material they needed for the story. That's impressive work. Furthermore, after the story was posted, the same account sent me a DM which included a link to the report and a thank you. That's good customer service.

A similar hat tip goes to the Manchester Evening News (although they didn't get in touch), which had posted the photograph within an hour of the protest. Someone must have been paying attention.

Would a bit of context kill you?

But, why was I in the Arndale Centre when the flash mob descended?

I was Christmas shopping. I had met up with a few mates for lunch and, while they went into Selfridges, I nipped into the Arndale Centre to have a look for a present for a friend.

Of course, no one knew any of this when I posted the photograph. All they knew was that I was taking photographs of a demonstration. For all anyone knew, I could have been a protester myself.

As many of the photographs and videos from the recent student demonstrations in London were taken by their attendees, it wouldn't have been a massive leap to assume that I was there for the demonstration itself.

And this lack of context causes problems.

Say you were one of the people outside my social circles who saw that tweet. All you know about me is my Twitter username and that I posted a photograph of a demonstration.

It's easy to jump to conclusions, so now I'm an activist (I'm not), I have an issue with Topshop (I don't), I associate myself with the four people who got arrested after this particular demonstration (I don't) and, even worse, I have anarchist tendencies (I don't).

Extreme examples? Probably, but you can see my point. What you post online affects how people perceive you. I upload a photograph of a demonstration and all of a sudden, I'm the 'kind of person who protests' (I'm not).

Without context, we fill in the blanks. Blanks become opinions. And opinions can affect your employability, your friends and your future.

Extreme examples? Of course. But tell that to the five self-proclaimed activists who started following me yesterday on Twitter. They think I'm one of them.


We all use language differently and we each have variety of ways to express feelings and situations. In face-to-face conversation, this gap in lexical emphasis isn't usually a problem. However, when people read something online, they apply their own semantic guidelines.

Take my tweet on Saturday. Of course, Topshop wasn't getting 'trashed' in the conventional sense; that suggest people damaging the store and its stock. I was using a colloquialism.

But, because there wasn't the space on the tweet to elaborate, that's what people assumed. So much so, that the Manchester Evening News initially reported the store as 'being trashed', which distorts the truth of the incident.

As people are unlikely to revisit a news story for clarifications or amendments, readers come away thinking certain things. 'Trashed' suggests that the protesters were vandals. 'Trashed' suggests that Topshop must have done something terribly wrong to deserve such actions.

Language shapes opinions and Twitter doesn't offer the opportunity for detail.


The incident served as a reminder that Twitter is a service which is fuelled by interest. Despite the increased coverage of my account through the channel, the number of additional followers gained was minimal.

Many of my tweets are SEO or social media based. And many of the people who retweeted my photograph just weren't that interested in social media or SEO news and views. More fool them.

Users follow accounts which post relevant content to them. Regardless of how many retweets a message get, it doesn't automatically mean a drastic increase of new followers if the content as a whole isn't aimed towards a specific audience. It's not just about metrics...

Factual accuracy

The photograph was taken from a good few feet away from the protest. I didn't have a particularly good view and occasionally my line of sight was blocked by the crowd in front of me. I was, to all intents and purposes, an unreliable narrator.

Still, because I highlighted the story on Twitter, I was considered the leading source of information. I'm sure there were those better placed in the crowd to explain what had happened, but they weren't posting the information on a social network.

And I think this is a major problem. When I spoke to the researcher at the BBC, I was very careful to say what I saw, rather than what I thought I saw. But, I'll go out on a limb and say that some people might not have the same approach in a newsworthy situation.

I'd imagine that these eye-witness reports shape how news is reported; who is the victim and who is the villain. If you're more than liberal with the facts, it's kind of worrying.


  1. an incredibly well written article and scary to follow the thought process through - Rest assured those that do know @totmac know the real story! regards @stagandhenmanc - Maybe links to P Fahy and miscontrued remarks on GMP twitter feed recently during their 24 hr twitter experiment?

  2. Great article.

    I believe resolving the very real concerns you brought up is the responsibility of both sides.

    Sending tweets that can be taken the wrong way is something that happens all day every day on Twitter, and not just when your tweet is picked up and used by large organisations. The later however can of course cause more damage, but if your tweets are to be read by a large number of followers or likely to be retweeted then double taking your chosen 140 characters can be a life saver.

    If you have a public account it is a case of living by the sword and dying by the sword. There is risk, of different levels, in every tweet you send.

    That being said, the use of Twitter as a news source by the large organisations you mention above is something they really need to get on top of. As with the BBC, a call to you before using your information is a must, and gathering (and using) that all important contextual information can not only add value to their story but also the clarity we often crave to our short shared bursts of thought and experience.

  3. There is a more concerning side - here's a bit of devil's advocate.

    A journalist is not concerned with your wellbeing, they are interested only in the story (note that's not the same as the truth).

    With that in mind, each picture you post perhaps should be accompanied by a disclaimer. Or with a out and out denial for anyone to use your photos - i.e. you do not give permission for their use.

  4. Really interesting piece.

    I had a brief conversation on twitter with you a few days ago with regards to opinions. Clearly you don't even need to express an opinion to be labelled as having one, which is a worry.

  5. Interesting to hear about the differences between the BBC's and MEN's approaches to user-generated content.

    I'm surprised the MEN didn't contact you first before using your picture. Standard practice (and basic good manners) is to at least ask permission before lifting content off the web.

  6. Tom,
    Sorry, the MEN should have made contact with you about using the picture you posted on Twitter.
    The image we used was clearly credited to your Twitter account, however I agree we should have messaged you about using it on our site. I can have it removed if you wish.
    You have made some interesting points in your post regarding user generated content and we will take note of them for future reference.

  7. Thanks for all your comments.

    @Paul - I'm not particularly upset that the photo was used without permission due to, as you pointed out, the credit attached to it. I believe that others may have had an issue if their material was used without permission though.

    Thanks for your comment though; it's appreciated.