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Twitter vs the world: Ten scandals that set Twitter alight

From the BNP to the NHS and Moir to Mandelson, Twitter provides a perfect outlet for the masses to unite in protest. We pick ten scandals that saw users throw their tweets out of the pram

2009 has been the year of Twitter. The number of users has exploded, and where there's people, there's people getting brassed off about something. From the Hudson river crash to the Bombay bombings, Twitter has seen users tweeting from the heart of the news. But the site also allows for instant, spontaneous mass reaction to events. We've picked ten of the scandals, shocks and controversies that have got our knickers in a knot and tweets in a twist over the past year.


November 2009
Controversy has been brewing over the government's vision for the future of Digital Britain ever since plans first called for copyright infringers to be barred from the Web. Talk of a three-strikes policy riled Twitter. But that was nothing compared to the tidal wave of outrage that burst forth when we learnt that Peter Mandelson is attempting a dastardly power grab. The measures could empower this unelected mandarin to empower his mates in the entertainment industries to enforce their own interests. It's too soon to tell if the twitlash will have an effect, but with a general election looming and more and more MPs hanging out on Twitter, the force of tweeted opinion will hopefully play a part in ending Mandy's grasping scheme.


October 2008
Oh how we laughed/were outraged. When naughty schoolboys/deranged, overpaid media whores Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left a series of hilarious/offensive messages on Andrew Sachs' answerphone, the initial reaction to the broadcast on Brand's Radio 2 show was muted. A week later the Mail on Sunday picked up on it and the BBC was flooded with tens of thousands of complaints. Twitter was ambivalent, but many seemed to think these second-hand complaints from those who had not heard the broadcast were rather hypocritical. Brand quit the BBC and Ross was suspended for 12 weeks.

Ross then did something very clever. Instead of disappearing and letting the outraged masses' view of him become entrenched, he joined Twitter. His charming tweets about his kids and being mildly starstruck when encountering famous people reminded us why we like him, and we'd argue his presence, alongside that of Stephen Fry, was the biggest reason for 2009 becoming the year of Twitter in the UK.

What we learned:
You can get away with anything as long as you 'get' Twitter.

Daily Mail gipsy poll

June 2009
Being entirely user-generated, Twitter is only as political as its users, and as an entirely level playing field, is a broad church of political opinion and robust debate. But in our experience, users tend to lean towards 'live and let live' -- so it seems that every other day there's another Daily Mail article getting users' liberal goat. For non-UK readers, the Daily Mail is a conservative tabloid with a surgical precision at tweaking the sensibilities of middle England. Its daily polls are more heavily loaded than Russell Grant's plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and 'Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue?' is a classic example. That poll annoyed Twitter's lefties so much that a concerted 'polljack' began, driving the results to 96 per cent 'Yes' and nearly taking down the Mail's servers before the poll was pulled.

What we learned:
Regular readers of any site will defend against Twitter invasions, in this case by systematically voting down any left-leaning comments, which could only be seen by clicking on the tab for worst-rated comments. The Daily Mail will take extra page views no matter where they come from.

Iran's 'Twitter revolution'

June 2009
On 12 June 2009 it was announced that the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won Iran's tenth presidential election. His opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi alleged irregularities in the vote and a week later, protests flared into violence. As government forces clamped down on media coverage of the chaos, ordinary Iranians turned to the Web to show what was happening. Ordinary people in the rest of the world, inured to horror seen on mainstream news, were deeply affected by YouTube videos and street-level tweets. Twitter avatars were coloured green in support in what some dubbed 'the Twitter revolution'.

What we learned:
Changing your Twitter picture doesn't stop people getting clubbed to death by a totalitarian regime thousands of miles away. But it's a nice thought.

The BNP on Question Time

October 2009
Controversy surrounded the decision to allow Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, on the political institution that is BBC2's Question Time. Some argue that the racist BNP should be denied the oxygen of publicity, while others suggest the party is so inherently ridiculous it won't stand up to public scrutiny. Twitter users largely employed the time-honoured tactic of ridiculing small-minded nasty pieces of work, with fake Nick Griffin accounts and hashtags such as #IsawNickGriffin...

What we learned:
When the BNP are in the news, every racist tabloid will turn itself in knots distancing itself from the party, despite spending every other day serving up statistic-massaging, quote-twisting hatefulness not a million miles away from the party's line.

We love the NHS

August 2009
Father Ted creator Graham Linehan is one of Britain's top tweeters. He created the 'We love the NHS' campaign in reaction to the lies about Britain's health system spread by the American right in the debate over President Obama's proposed healthcare reforms. The beauty of #WelovetheNHS is that it invited Twitter users to share their individual experiences of lives saved and loved ones cared for, creating a body of evidence to remind us who benefits from universal healthcare, and why it's so important. Even Gordon Brown and David Cameron waded in.

What we learned:
Twitter connects with people's everyday experiences in a far more effective way than any politician's rhetoric. Everybody loves the NHS.


June 2009
Trending topics were added to Twitter in late May. Within days spammers had worked out that adding random, unconnected hashtags and subjects to their tweets would get them seen by a larger audience. Furniture shop Habitat latched on to this tactic. Spamming comments and user reviews is known as 'astroturfing' -- perhaps in honour of Habitat, this tactic on Twitter should be called 'shag-pile carpeting'? Unfortunately, these particular tweets included trending topics related to the Iranian election and the subsequent violence. After the backlash, Habitat blamed "an overenthusiastic intern".

What we learned:
Habitat was founded in 1964 by Terence Conran. Nobody likes spam.

G20 protests

April 2009
As world leaders converged in East London, the travelling circus of demonstrations and security operations that follows the G20 summits was pitching up across the city. Protest groups such as G20 Meltdown had already gained several column inches from announcements that they would be using Twitter to co-ordinate activities. This followed the arrest in the US of Elliot Madison, who used Twitter to track police movements at an earlier summit. Controversy over the Metropolitan Police's allegedly heavy-handed tactics spread quickly over Twitter, with YouTube videos and Twitpics depicting events as they unfolded. Events took a tragic turn with the death of Ian Tomlinson, a newsagent who was assaulted by police as he walked home. When it was revealed that the incident had been captured on video, the link spread through Twitter like wildfire.

What we learned:
Taking your numbers off your uniform doesn't work in the digital age. Don't mess with the Met.

Jan Moir and the death of Stephen Gately

October 2009
The untimely death of boy bander Stephen Gately was greeted by most people as a sad end for a nice young chap. Not the Daily Mail's Jan Moir. In a piece entitled 'Why there was nothing "natural" about Stephen Gately's death', Moir began by pointing out that the excessive apetitites of the rich and famous can lead to over-indulgence and even tragedy. The article then insinuated that Gately's death was linked to the fact that he was gay, his death striking "another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships". Moir argued this must be true because another man had died recently, and he had once been married to Matt Lucas. QED, innit? Twitter users went nuts.

Within minutes the article's comments were overwhelmed with protest -- there's over 1,600 to date -- and Twitter was full of anti-Jan Moir tweets and hashtags. Fake Jan Moir Twitter accounts began to spring up. Reluctant to give the Mail extra page views, users pasted the article's text into public Google Docs. Within hours, advertising was pulled from the article, the headline was changed to 'A strange, lonely and troubling death', and the Press Complaints Commission's Web site had crashed under a record number of complaints. In her 'apology', Moir blamed a "mischievous, orchestrated campaign", when in fact what had happened was a spontaneous reaction against an ill-researched, insidious and unpleasant piece of homophobia.

What we learned:
The Press Complaints Commission is a cosy industry body rather than an independent regulator, and will only consider complaints from those directly named in articles. You can't die of gay, no matter how famous you are. Don't mess with Twitter.


October 2009
Twitter's finest hour? The Trafigura scandal was a perfect demonstration of the maxim that information wants to be free. The Guardian reported it had been gagged by libel go-to guys Carter-Ruck. That was all the red rag that the Web needed. In no time at all, Twitter users had put two and two together and come up with Trafigura, an oil company currently whistling tunelessly and staring nervously at the ceiling every time anyone mentions toxic waste dumping off the Ivory Coast. The injunction was quickly lifted.

What we learned:
The moment someone like Stephen Fry tweets about a subject, even 'super-injunctions' aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

What scandals, moral panics and controversies have rocked your tweets? Let us know in the comments. For the latest technology news and other outrageous statements, including CNET UK in pictures, #cakethursday and Press Release of the Day, follow us on Twitter at