Did Twitter kill a newspaper? Of course not

These are fairly shocking times to be British. A nation known for being sedate and unstoppably polite has been jolted into righteous fury by a series of revelations — namely that the infamously scurrilous tabloid newspaper the News of the World had illegally listened to voicemails belonging to, well, almost anyone they could find: murder victims, families of murder victims, those involved in terrorist attacks and those whose relatives died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even though there was increasing pressure on the News of the World, pressure which gathered steam this week as more allegations came to light, it’s fair to say that everyone — the media industry, the business world and the British public alike — was stunned when James Murdoch, son of Rupert, announced today that his response was to close down the newspaper entirely.

What was less surprising, perhaps, is that the Twitter corps immediately went into overdrive to claim this “victory” as its own. Almost immediately, social media outlets were full of people trotting out the line that they had been a part, including this piece on Wired’s UK website titled “It was Twitter wot closed it”:

A huge hate campaign against the newspaper brewed on Twitter, with messages such as “campaigning for Sarah’s Law, while hacking into missing child’s phone & giving family false hope. #notw” being heavily retweeted along with calls for editor-at-the-time Rebekah Brooks’ resignation.

Really? Is that what things have come to? This is the kind of glib, self-serving tripe that makes me mad — and it’s the sort of crying-wolf moment that means people think anyone online is smug and self-obsessed. But it really makes me mad because it’s wrong on so many levels.

Twitter is no match for the local pub

Twitter’s fury was just a tiny sampling of a public anger that was far, far greater than it’s possible to put down in words. If you went anywhere in Britain over the last few days, it was simply impossible to ignore this story and the fallout. The indignation and disgust was everywhere — not just in the self-referential world of social media. It wasn’t just water cooler conversation. It was the only conversation.

Yesterday, for example, I was working in a London pub: a dirty, smelly, hoary old man’s boozer, the kind of place where you’re more likely to catch a disease as find a quality drink. I think it’s fair to assume that none of the four elderly, toothless and alcohol-soaked clientele were Twitter fanatics. Instead of poking away at their smartphones, they were watching TV. And what were they watching? An emergency parliamentary debate in which politicians were breathing hellfire about the News of the World’s behavior. These men were, it seems, readers of the News of the World — and they were turning their back on it.

That revolt by ordinary readers (mostly non-Twitter users), in turn, fed a commercial boycott. The Murdochs were able to ignore building public anger until the News of the World’s advertisers tuned into the public mood and decided to boycott the title — and it is that commercial pressure that made things happen. That’s the real stuff that made the Murdochs take notice.

Print journalists did the digging

Second, it was not Twitter that brought these revelations into the public sphere: it was the tireless work of a group of individuals led, for the most part by Nick Davies, an investigative reporter at the Guardian. Now, you can take this with a pinch of salt, because I was a reporter at the Guardian myself for years, but I think the dogged reporting by Davies and others over the last two years is what has kept this story going. At points the police, the politicians, the public and the rest of the media seemed happier to let it disappear. But in the end, Davies’ work — which was aided at important points by a small group of politicians who used their powers for good — was the block on which the News of the World’s head rested.

What does “killed” really mean, anyway?

Third, we are not even sure that the axe coming down will actually be the end of anything. There is already plenty of concern that this is a smokescreen, or a simple commercial decision. Although the News of the World is the title at the center of this storm, the problems do not stop there. Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the paper, is now one of Rupert Murdoch’s most senior executives, and right now she shows no signs of resigning. The other Murdoch tabloid she edited, the Sun, seems likely to take over the News of the World’s position on the news stand by publishing an extra edition — and it’s a paper that has shared both a staff and an ideology with the News of the World over generations. Then there’s Prime Minister David Cameron — such a close ally of Brooks that he spends the holidays with her and hired her disgraced understudy as his press chief.

If social media killed the News of the World, why won’t it simply carry on its rampage and take down the man in charge of the British government? I think we all know the answer to that question.

Yes, social media has played a role in some significant world events recently. But the rush to attribute every event to Twitter or Facebook shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the world, and what technology can do. The fact is that social media is simply people having conversations — and that saying Twitter or Facebook or social media brought down the News of the World is like saying the alphabet did it.

In the end, it’s simple: the truth killed the News of the World, and right now we don’t even know exactly what the whole truth is.