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Could Bert & Ernie Spark a Riot

The most read  article on the BBC news website in the days after the riots was about Bert and Ernie not marrying, and Sesame Street keeping their relationship ambiguous!


I think this goes a long way to explaining the behaviour exhibited by some people during those riots. Here’s how:


Bert and Ernie’s prominence in the news clearly demonstrates not only that we choose what we want to read, but that as we do so, we promote its news ranking in real time, and as we do that it becomes more prominently placed for others. In a way, it goes viral very quickly, and then disappears very quickly.


In fact, not only were Bert & Ernie on the BBC website, but their faces also adorned my Facebook wall, posted by a friend, who I kind of know, from work, a few years ago. We each have a couple of hundred Facebook friends, most of whom will be from a very similar social background, and all of whom will have seen the news we have picked out of nowhere for them to see. Anyone of them sharing this news will have amplified its reach by a couple of hundred people and so on.


This may seem quite innocuous, but even if Bert and Ernie were to decide that despite syndicating their sleeping habits to 200 million viewers globally, they wanted this aspect of  their private life protected by law. Let’s say that they had taken out a super injunction to protect themselves and their friends. Recent events show us that old media need not be involved in the viral spread of news. In other words, new media makes an individual’s power to generate and distribute news far greater than any group’s power to control it. The two have become hugely asymmetric.


Readers steeped in the tradition of broadsheet news will be able to tell the clearly demarcated difference between news, opinion and sentiment. New media is far less well demarcated, we are all familiar with online news being accompanied not only by an AV feed, but also readers’ comments and twitter feeds  instantly catching the nation’s mood on a particular subject.


Where this has happened, the establishment who are used to being able to control news and opinion through a few channels and who understand nothing of the seismic shift in news delivery and consumption threaten to shut down or sue a medium like twitter in what is at best an exposition of their ignorance or more cynically  a piece of grand posturing to distract from their own disempowerment.


This can be scary or empowering. We all marvel at the use of social media in Iran and the Arab spring, but what if I gradually migrate into a deranged Sesame Street obsessed social circle where I choose to consume nothing but Bert and Ernie related news? I start networking with equally disconnected people, instantly capturing, amplifying and re-affirming their and my raw gut reactions as news or the acceptable mood of the nation, simultaneously driving Bert & Co up the news rankings.


What if, just as the twittering middle classes can quickly, efficiently and anonymously organise flash mobs to dance in public spaces, my network realises it can mobilise a flash mob to loot, riot, or even lynch?


This is  worrying, as not only have the current powers lost the ability to control news and opinion, they now face an asymmetric physical threat too, one that can come from no where and disappear just as quickly.  One of the solutions the government propose is to shut down social media, driving people already thoroughly disconnected from reality to even more disconnected introspective shadowy systems.


It is slightly worrying that I have had to use poor old Bert & Ernie to get your attention, more worrying that it has worked, but it will be genuinely frightening if their ability to ride the new media wave starts to spread to more extreme groups within our society.


Haidar  Samiei


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