In Twitter era, authorities must adapt or struggle

LONDON,  (Reuters) –  With social media brutally  accelerating the news cycle and allowing rumours from riots to  bank failures to spread at lightning speed, politicians,  businesses and governments must adapt fast.

Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened  to temporarily block platforms such as Blackberry messaging used  to coordinate looting and unrest — but the experience of the  “Arab Spring” suggest that approach might be doomed to failure.

For some of the world’s most powerful countries, the stakes  could hardly be higher. Britain’s riots rendered parts of London  and other cities briefly ungovernable and raised serious  questions over the sustainability of the government’s austerity  strategy.

The ousting of presidents in Tunisia and Egypt by social  media-fuelled revolutions clearly alarmed China’s rulers, who  rely on a sophisticated system of “networked authoritarianism”  to control online debate and avoid a similar fate.

But even some veteran security specialists warn such  attempts may not only be doomed to failure but could jeopardise  the authority of those who try. Egyptian President Hosni  Mubarak’s Internet shutdown, they warn, merely served to bring  more people onto the streets.

“The use of social media in the unrest looks like a game  changer but any attempt to exert state control… looks likely  to fail,” said John Bassett, a former senior official at British  signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at  London’s Royal United Services Institute.

“Ultimately those governments that try to operate old-style  control models are likely to fail, losing legitimacy and respect  in the eyes of their populations,”

Monitoring networks for useful intelligence was useful, he  said, as was encouraging individuals and community groups to  report potential troublemakers.

But most communication experts say that what established  organisations really need to do is learn to use such platforms  to shape the narrative themselves. And they need to learn fast.

Caroline Sapriel, a specialist consultant based in Brussels  who advises multinational companies on crises, says the key is  for firms to use platforms such as Twitter to swiftly engage on  an issue and avoid losing control.

 “LIGHT-SPEED” CRISES   

“These days, crises of all types unravel and gain momentum  at light speed,” she said. “There is no longer any question that  to tell your side of the story… social media is the way — not  reactively but proactively, strategically planned and handled by  specialists around the clock. This is not a part-time job.”

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp discovered that to their cost  last month. An online Twitter campaign to persuade advertisers  to abandon the scandal-hit News of the World took hold so fast  that the paper ceased production within days.

Allegations that the newspaper hacked telephone voice mails  and paid for police information not only inflicted lasting  reputational damage on News Corp but also much of the British  establishment seen as much too close to mogul Murdoch.

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