As I watched the looting and burning of buildings and shops in parts of London and other UK cities orchestrated and co-ordinated by vandals using blackberries and mobile phones and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it made me think about the speed and ability of societies and institutions to control ideas and communication.

The unrest in London has already been described as ‘Britain’s first 21st century riot’. The use of social networking has also been a key feature in the Arab Spring as civil unrest spread across the Middle East, with video from smartphones and Facebook messages and Twitter feeds to some extent replacing official press coverage, especially in areas where journalists are banned.

Some of the countries that are today rising up for change were the same ones who were brutally repressed 50 years ago. The difference between then and now is the rise of digital media.

Key tools for the modern revolution are digital because they achieve significant things; first, they bring together otherwise remote and disparate groups. Second, they create channels to bypass traditional state control of the media so the outside world can see what is going on. Alongside traditional activism and action, the tools of the trade today are the internet (for information dissemination and news), social media (to connect and coordinate), mobile phones (to capture what happens) and digital, particularly satellite, television to report it.  Hansard Society blog

What is evident is that news, thoughts, ideas and opinions  are no longer controllable in a traditional sense. Businesses in the past have developed and massaged their ‘public image’ using a range of media and marketing tools. What the digital media has done is to ‘democratise’ these channels of communication, moving away from the one-way communication of the traditional marketing mix to a fluid and organic dialogue often beyond the control of organisations.

So what economic and commercial effects will these disturbances have on the UK’s reputation abroad? The story is being broadcast around the world and providing an image of a country that is dangerous and potentially ‘out of control’. Inevitably this will affect tourism, the image of UK businesses and the confirmation of business contracts, even if the events are less significant than they appear on focused and  edited news stories – bad news travels fast. These events are likely to be relatively short-lived, but perception is all and this will linger into the future. The UK government will do well to look at how they can use the social media to address misconceptions, untruths and rumours.  The question is whether this is possible. In the same way that the UK authorities are struggling to crowd control in a physical sense, will it be any easier to control the virtual crowd?

The following is a news report from Russia Today:


If countries cannot control their image, what chance do individual firms and organisations have? Firms know they have to take advantage of the massive power and reach of the social media, but the key question is how best to incorporate social media strategies into their marketing mixes and use these to their commercial advantage. Certainly, it appears that the corporate world is struggling to know how to deal with the potential harm from concerted efforts to undermine the business operations of selected firms. The Gulf oil disaster last year is an excellent case study. The oil spill led to a flood of hugely damaging press for BP with many anti-BP websites and campaigning groups on Facebook and Twittter.  BP’s attempt to control social perceptions was woeful and when they finally attempted to use the social media, it was far too late and far too little. BP attempted to respond with their official twitter feed and facebook site, but these appear relatively feeble compared to the negative forces lined up against them. The social media is global, crossing national boundaries and legal jurisdictions. Reputations can be destroyed by not only the truth, but also by libel and slander. Can, and do, users of the social media distinguish between what is accurate and objective and what is not? A fascinating debate for a TOK lesson!

What is clear is that the opinion formers for the younger generation may be very diferent from those of the past. News programmes this morning have referred to the tweets of the footballers, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney. These are clearly influential as these individuals have millions of followers.



In the same way that firms attempt to control negative customer reviews on sites such as e-Bay and Amazon, will it be in the interest of firms to recruit those who appeal to the young to be their social media ambassadors – covert or not? In the same way that Manchester United players are sponsored to wear certain sports strips and to use sponsors’ products in a range of ways, will  firms sponsor celebrities in the future to be their public face on social media? The world of the public relations firm is set to change dramatically…