Edinburgh Festival of Politics examines impact of social networks on news

This article is from 2011.

Festival of Politics summit to examine the impact of social networks on news broadcasting

Talks on human rights and social media featured in 2011 programme of talks

Where were you when unrest broke out in Iran before the 2009 presidential elections or when the Cairo protests against Hosni Mubarak were going on or even when the first of many Ryan Giggs stories began to leak? You were probably in front of Twitter, the place where these stories played themselves out in a manner that rolling TV news could only follow.

A few years ago there was a chance that older generations might not have heard much about Twitter and a slightly younger generation could scoff that it was the site to visit if you wanted to know who was having a cup of tea where. Times have changed – and quickly – and this year's Festival of Politics is holding its very own social networking summit comprising three sessions that will explore the impact of Twitter in disseminating and understanding key news stories.

Raising awareness of human rights is one of the main areas to be explored. Chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Professor Alan Miller, will lead a session entitled Making Human Rights Real and sets the scene in advance. 'We've seen so much upheaval in Africa and the Middle East in the past few months, and human rights concerns are at the centre of demands for change. Sadly, abuses have also been a major part of the narrative of the “Arab Spring”. Social media is exciting and dynamic, but it also raises other questions about freedom of expression. In the UK the law hasn't caught up with the rapid development of social media, and as we've seen with super-injunctions, information-sharing can raise serious legal issues.'

Fellow panellist, the author, journalist and activist Ahdaf Soueif is, perhaps, less cautious about the opening of fresh news channels, and views the rise of every form of communication as a positive step. 'Traditional media such as newspapers and TV news broadcasting continue to be important,' she maintains. 'Nothing is static. In Egypt's case, people are constantly moving between e-communication and communication-in-the-flesh. We saw that in the revolution. I saw it in June in the first meeting to be held by a community of tweeters. They opened it to the public, but the rules were tweet rules. It was brilliant.'

Meanwhile, the impact of Twitter on the domestic scene will be dissected by Dr Andy Williamson, director of the digital democracy programme of the Hansard Society in a session on social media and Scottish politics called Has Twitter Changed the World?. Williamson believes that social media 'creates the potential for meaningful two-way conversations with our elected representatives, which is what the public wants', but warns that 'the news media has been very slow to understand social media and too focused on the negative. This is improving but journalists still place too much emphasis on the tools they value, particularly Twitter, demonstrating poorer understanding of other tools, such as Facebook'.

The inevitable backlash against Twitter has arrived because of less positive news stories concerning hoaxes, abuse and bullying, while there is a significant body of people who share the negative views of documentary-maker Adam Curtis, who recently dubbed Twitter a 'self-aggrandising, smug pressure group', which promoted a 'narrow non-social view of the world'.

Notwithstanding these concerns and the traditional media's struggle to get to grips with the new forms of communication, everyone would agree that Twitter and other outlets are now an integral part of the social and political landscape. 'The internet is the tool of choice in many parts of our lives,' notes Williamson. 'We use it to make friends, communicate, shop and follow the news, so it makes sense that we turn to the internet when we want to engage in political activity. The internet didn't cause a revolution – years of corruption and repression did that – but what it did do was connect people up quickly and effectively. It is a powerful tool for building informal networks and for communicating.'

Has Twitter Changed the World?, Thu 25 Aug, 1.30pm, free; The Only Way is … Twitter?, Sat 27 Aug, 4.30pm, £6 (£3.50); Making Human Rights Real: The Impact and Influence of Social Media, Sat 27 Aug, 5pm, free. All events at Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 473 2000.

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