Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The modern newsroom

Apologies if this is a little disjointed, I'm writing the majority of this on a coach with very sporadic internet connection:

Hat tip to Mountainrunner for this fascinating post at the Knight Digital Media Centre entitled Three signs your newsroom is not ready to cross the digital divide. Here are the three signs, along with their respective fixes:
1. The staff still reports to an assignment desk that is focused on print and/or is organized in departments that correspond to the sections of a newspaper. This inevitably means that newsgathering for print gets more time than the news organization can afford and print production demands drive the daily reporting and editing assembly line. The fix: Newsgathering staff reports to the online assignment desk. Print becomes a production team that draws heavily on the online report for content at the end of the day.

2. News meetings focus on top news for the next day’s paper and meeting times reflect print. If your frontline editors are focused on daily meetings that happen in the middle of the morning and late afternoon, you’ve got a big problem. If you’re spending more than one-fifth of the meeting time talking about the next day’s newspaper, you’ve got an even bigger problem. The fix: Meetings run by online editors at times that reflect digital publication timetables (like when to serve peak traffic) and focus primarily on online content, traffic and engagement metrics.

3. The top newsroom executives - say the Editor and Managing Editor(s) - are all print veterans who look at online from the outside. The fix: Either the top newsroom executive or the Number 2 has been steeped heavily in online - both the practical and the strategic - for at least five years, if not 10. That’s a tall order. But if you think an editor or managing editor has time for much of a learning curve about digital, that time is gone.
I always like it when a piece I read summarises a set of points that have been on my mind better than I've been able to personally. I've got to the strange point in my life where people occasionally ask me for career advice and one of the careers I've taken pains to discourage them from is journalism, not because I think journalism is a bad thing, but because I think anyone going into the field is going to spend the next decade waiting for the industry to figure out what the heck it is doing.

Here is, in my opinion, the most important line of the piece:
If you think an editor or managing editor has time for much of a learning curve about digital, that time is gone.
Therein lies the key problem for newspapers in particular. The key people live and breathe print. Even the Guardian, which has done very well at addressing the new technology and incorporating it into their brand, has not gone as far as purely online organisations like The Huffington Post, in creating a sense of community around their reporting.

The economics of paywalls are still in the air, although it seems pretty clear that the Murdoch empire is really struggling to put a brave face on their attempts to create exclusivity. Fundamentally it seems unlikely that The Times experiment has been a success, which is to the benefit of pretty much every other paper, since it saves them trying it out themselves.

There is a great internet meme which fits the mindset which seems to have pervaded most old media, derived from a South Park episode parodying capitalism. In this episode gnomes steal underpants and devise a foolproof plan to turn the stolen garments into profit. They summarise it on this slide:

Some news outlets seem to have adopted a similar strategy summed up thusly:

1) Produce interesting content
2) Charge more than competitors for a product which isnt qualitatively better
3) ????

Right now the leading amalgamation of new and old media, The Huffington Post, is doing its level best to translate its 20+ million monthly visitors (of which I've very much one) into profit and even they can't yet say if its worked.

We're in an interesting position where bloggers are the ones generating massive audiences, but journalists are the ones with the credibility, where Guido Fawkes breaks stories that the main papers can't get ahold of, and where Wikileaks gets to decide what some of the world's biggest papers are going to talk about.

Its a funny old world.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Proposals afoot to shut down UK based free speech on the internet

Hat tip to Guido Fawkes for this one, probably one of the most sinister things I've read in quite some time. From Order Order:
Nominet – the quasi-private entity which controls the .uk part of the internet - plans to allow the police to take down any website without recourse to the Courts. This is at the request of the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
He goes on to make a good point, that free societies don't allow police to judge right and wrong, thats what the courts are for. It means they dont have a vested interest in going after things which annoy them, like being criticised on the internet.

This sort of move is exactly the kind of bone headed idiocy which only a public body could undertake. Its an assault on free speech, and it won't work, and it has the added advantage of making the Serious Organised Crime Agency look like a bunch of squealing children who don't like it that the internet is mean about them.

Lets just say it for the record, this move won't make you safer, it won't stop bad people doing bad things, it won't get child porn off the internet or limit piracy. The only purpose it can possibly serve is to take down a limited number of targetted websites, like Fitwatch, who piss the police off.

So yes, slow handclap SOCA, once again you've made yourself look like a bunch of petty, stupid children who care more about your own power than the good of the society you serve.

Friday, 26 November 2010

D-notice issued over Wikileaks

Its being confirmed at the moment that there has been a media D-notice issued over the upcoming release of Wikileaks diplomatic cables. This is of course an attempt to limit the damage these releases are going to do. The projected damage to international relations is unpredictable, but most people seem to think it'll be pretty severe, if not disasterous. Since no one knows what the heck Wikileaks actually has for sure, its hard to predict.

D-notices are of course bloody stupid in the modern world, since all they do is attempt to stop mainstream news outlets reporting on a story. The problem is that there are tens of thousands of outlets who are not affected by D-notices, including yours truly. In the final analysis I may well not write anything on it because A) I doubt I'll read any of the material first hand and B) Far far more significant minds than mine will do far better pieces on it.

All a d-notice will serve to do is limit the exposure those least interested in current affairs have. So you'll be stopping people who don't care, reading about something they arent interested in, and probably don't understand. What a staggering victory that will be.

Also, theres a good chance that at least some of the main media outlets will publish and be damned. There is no reason for them not to, a D-notice is a request, not an order, and if the material released is good enough, they'll go for it anyway.

The collosal power of Wikileaks will grow once more with this release, and there is still no sign anyone in any world Government has the first idea what to do.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Sky News, working hard to prove they're morons

UPDATE: Ian at Only Dreaming has written a far more amusing and cogent analysis of this which I thoroughly recommend you read. As its better than mine, it goes at the top.

Sky have a great story today, they're reporting that Stuxnet has been "bought", and might be used, by criminals or terrorists.

Yes, Sky News is reporting that a computer virus might be used by bad people.

My favourite quote is this:
A senior IT security source said: "We have hard evidence that the virus is in the hands of bad guys – we can't say any more than that but these people are highly motivated and highly skilled with a lot of money behind them.
Well yes, it is in the hands of bad guys, the people who wrote it in the first place. Its malicious code designed to do bad things. The people who wrote it are criminals just to start off with.

They also report as fact that it was used to target Iranian nuclear facilities, something wholly unproven. (A colleague of mine in the office just piped up with "Although the fact the Israeli Defence Minister giggles every time the virus is mentioned is a clue", tasteless, but undeniably amusing.)

The next brilliant quote is this:
Will Gilpin, an IT security consultant to the UK Government said: "You could shut down the police 999 system.

"You could shut down hospital systems and equipment.

"You could shut down power stations, you could shut down the transport network across the United Kingdom."

Well yes, we knew that, because it can in theory shut down a nuclear reprocessing facility. So saying that makes you a moron, not some sort of savant. Also, can it really do those things? Stuxnet in its current form targets one extremely specific operating system, produced for industrial processes.

I can't face writing a more detailed analysis of this article as A) I dont have time B) What would be the point? These idiots (And I'm looking specifically at the author Sam Kiley , who should know better), will keep putting this nonesense about.

Literally no part of this piece makes the journalists who reported this anything other than a complete moron in the eyes of anyone with the barest level of knowledge.

Well done Sky, as you charge boldly towards the absolute bottom of the barrel in your reporting.


Wednesday, 24 November 2010

*sigh* Another hiatus

Blogging is a bit dead at the moment due to the impending Christmas season. With every client wanting something complete in the next few weeks its a little tough forming original thought.

I'm off next week so fingers crossed for that. I'm also hoping to have some new links avaliable soon.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Why do Governments like Whac-a-mole so much?

It seems increasingly likely that over the next 6 months the US will increase its military presence in Yemen, building its intelligence assets and generally trying to expand their ability in the country.

Of course the problem is that if we (I can't imagine a scenario in which the UK won't want to take some role) go to Yemen and get some boots on the ground, the people we're looking for will hop across the Gulf of Aden and go to Somalia. If they go there the problem is significantly greater of course, since Somalia is the quintissential failed state, and already provides a fantastic location to launder money, if you happen to have a shedload of cash you need to move, like a terrorist might.

Limewire, the popular file sharing programme was recently shut down, inspiring almost immediately Limewire Pirate Edition. Limewire have disowned this, and they almost certainly werent involved in it, but even so, the response took next to no time. I imagine someone, in some Government department got a good 5 minutes of feeling smug about their victory, before realising that the situation had changed and the years it took to crush Limewire were utterly wasted.

In the UK the Police shut down a blog which published information on how to avoid being identified if you had taken part in the recent student protests. At the time the Guardian article appeared, 78 other sources had posted the same information in protest of the blog shutdown. And of course the story appeared in the Guardian, taking it from something next to no one would have known about to being a reasonably big deal.

In each of the above cases, any reasonably intelligent person can tell you what the countermove will be without really applying themselves. Your terrorist training camp in Yemen got blown up? Move to Somali. Your website got shut down? Open another one and ask your mates to repost the material.

This raw inability to actually think strategically is both a boon and a curse. It means that by and large, Governments (in this context, I refer both to the central Government and its constituent departments) are phenominally poor at censoring things and getting in the way of innovation. Often they actually inspire innovation by simply getting in the way. But equally it can serve to shoot everyone in the foot in fine fashion.

Consider the impending "Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act" (COICA) law in the USA. Pretty much every smart person who gets it is saying this law will negatively impact the utility of the internet. The people saying it is a good idea are music industry lobbyists and politicians they pay for. The law will, it seems, probably pass. It will also almost certainly fail to work. Considering that China has failed pretty badly to censor their internet (regardless of what you might read in the mainstream press the Great Firewall is pretty porus), it seems unlikely that a country with a right to free speech will succeed where they have failed.

If Governments are to get smaller, they have to try and get smarter and more strategic, and actually think out the long term implications of their actions. In the UK we're trying to create a new Silicon Valley (according to the Government), but I almost guarantee that no one has thought about whether we need to think about non-compete laws should be loosened, one of the key successes of Silicon Valley. Instead we talk a big game and I imagine nothing will come of it.

In a world where a crazy pastor can cause the entirety of the US Government to change pace, its easy to see why its hard to think strategically, but thats not an excuse. If you allow yourself to be distracted by these things, and not make the hard choices, you're left flailing wildly and trying to survive crisis after crisis, because there will always be another media driven, nonesense crisis (or Royal Wedding). In fact, it makes you a pundit, not a leader. You're a talking head to slot in between segments.

Its not that strategy has become tactics, its that strategy has become tactics. There is no overriding strategic goal to achieve, but just a relentless series of panics which must be reacted to and moved on from.

There has to come a point at which Governments take a step back and a long deep breath and stop listening to the relentless buzz of the media, and take a moment to consider what the actual implications of their actions will be. Not only that, but what will be the implications of the result. If most smart people are saying something is wrong, but lobbyists are saying something is right, maybe you need to not listen to the lobbyists.

Whac-a-mole is fun, but its not a process, and I certainly don't want it in my Government. It leaves us weaker, it leaves us poorer, and it leaves us worse today than we were yesterday.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A collection of links, possibly to make you think

As I'm unable to find time to put togeather my own thoughts at the moment I feel like its time to share some of the best things other people have been thinking of late.

First up, a little light comedy. The Nicaraguan army accidentally invaded Costa Rica a little while ago, due to confusion caused by inaccurate Google Maps. It should be noted that when they came across a Costa Rican flag the Nicaraguan army did take it down and replace it with their own however. It has not been made clear why the army didn't use its own maps, which accurately display the border. This is probably a hat tip to TechDirt.

Ars Technica have a relatively accessable article on various techniques which might be used to confront the growing problem of botnets. Fairly niche to be sure, but botnets are a huge problem for internet infrastructure and sooner or later someone will have to sit down and talk seriously about how to deal with them.

Another good Ars Technica piece is on so called 'pirate markets'. Historically these have been physical locations, where people could go to buy things like copied DVDs and the like. Now increasingly the trend is to highlight particular internet sites as 'pirate markets'. As the RIAA continues to fail dramatically in curbing pirating its an interesting pseudo diplomatic move. Is this one aspect of the diminishing importance of countries themselves?

Two good pieces from Global Post on the Mexican drug war, the first about the Zeta cartel issuing press releases as they strengthen their hold on local media. The second (woefully out of date, but I only just found it accidentally) are some stunning photographs, along with an excellent article, on Ciudad Juarez, the most muderous city in the world.

There are two good posts on the UK and our strategic future on Zen Pundit. If you've been following recent posts on Kings of War its an excellent suppliment from a US perspective.

Finally, a white paper on 3D printing. I've not managed to read the whole thing as yet, but what I have read is extremely high quality. The title "It will be awesome if they don't screw it up" perfectly matches my own feelings on the issue. Hat tip to Global Guerrillas.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Happy Birthday to the US Marine Corp

As I discovered today on Small Wars Journal, its the 235th birthday of the US Marine Corps. The Corps is undoubtably one of the finest military institutions on the planet and its work has saved many British lives when they have served alongside our servicemen.

Take the time to watch the video. Its a fascinating snippet of history.


Blogging light

Afraid due to work committments blogging will be light for the rest of this week. Having yet to stagged through the door earlier than midnight its a bit hard to focus on writing something coherent.

I will endevour to get some new links up in the next 24 hours however.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Book review: Amexica

I bought Amexica, by Ed Vulliamy, about a week back and haven't been able to put it down apart from occasional forays into various articles, which I hope to write up over the weekend.

I've been doing a fair bit of reading on the Mexico situation of late, as its a fascinating real world case study of a post-political conflict, so this book was too good an opportunity to resist.

The book paints an undeniably bleak picture, of a state which, if it has not already failed, is on the edge of failure in the face of a tidal wave of violence. The core of this violence is the drug trade, however, this violence has also created an opportunity for violence of all kinds to rise to the surface.

What is especially worrying for the observer is the fact that the major social institutions charged with retaining order, the police and the military, are both seen to be comprehensively corrupt. This corruption varies in severity, from soldiers letting trucks cross the border without being searched properly, to active corruption, with police officers facilitating or taking part in massacres.

The book runs through a gamut of different themes, looking at the plight of many different groups, from the mentally ill, whose shelters are now targeted by gunmen for mysterious reasons, to women, who, in some cities, vanish by the dozen a week, only to be found violated and murdered dumped int he street.

Because the book flows through the authors own observations and interviews with a range of colourful characters it is extremely personal, and makes the plight of the Mexican people all the more poignant.

Its hard, from this narrative, to see how the Mexican state can ever recover, and more importantly, how this violence can be prevented from spreading North into America itself, if indeed it hasn't already. Although the border wall and other means of preventing illegal immigration are of some use, fundamentally, the flow of people to and fro continues, and with immigration come the cartels.

The other problem is that without the cartels the Mexican economy would have severe issues. The flow of money undoubtedly supports the wider economy, particularly as that legal economy is weakened by the slow flow of factories out of Mexico into Asia. The cartels pay well, although the risks of working for them are high, and often there are few other opportunities. Also, for young men, there are few other chances to become involved in a community.

Long term its hard to see where this trend takes us. If the cartels were not being challenged so directly by the state then the violence would probably recede, or at least that is the implication of the book. However this would inevitably lead to a swifter decline for the state as the cartels could channel more money into corrupting local institutions, without the need for so much street war. It would also probably lead to the rise to supremacy of a single cartel over the others.

The problem is that unlike much of the some of the cartels in South America the Mexican cartels show less interest in replacing the functions of the state as they work to collapse it. Elsewhere in the world we have seen the extraterritorialisation of parcels of land by powerful cartels who take at least some pride in providing security and stability to the areas they control, whilst seeking to expand their territory over time.

Some Mexican cities, at least according to the book, have been wholly corrupted by the cartels. The end result of which seems to be the total collapse of local media, and the decay of traditional state functions. Substantial amounts of violence still occur, although more of it is directed at women. This can only occur in places where one cartel is wholly dominant, and there is an implication that if another cartel attempted a hostile takeover then violence would swiftly return to the streets.

I'm also interested in whether America itself can cope with the gradual decline and possible collapse of its neighbour to the South. As violence starts to penetrate the Southern states it remains to be seen if structures which will push it back can be developed. With political focus on overseas conflicts and fixing problems in the economy and in the core of the country it seems unlikely that this issue on the periphery will achieve significant attention. It is well worth reading this piece by Robert J. Bunker, featured recently in Small Wars Journal, which calls for precisely this shift in political focus.

It seems unlikely that American institutions will prove to be substantially better than those in Mexico to cope with a post political conflict. It only remains to be seen if the cartels decide it is worth the risk of raising the ire of America. Most likely, in the short term, that the cartels will resist this temptation, it serves very little purpose with Mexico still unsubdued.

This is the first truly comprehensive book I've found on the growing crisis in Mexico, elegantly and emotionally written it doesn't lose its way and digs into some of the more complex issues around 4th generational war, and post political conflict without difficulty. Even if it is a wholly depressing read its worth the time. Lets just hope that Mexico isn't a harbinger for the types of conflicts which will dominate the 21st century.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Links, and plenty of them

I've decided that due to my spectacular unreliability about posting individual links as I find them on here, I'm going to try putting up a raft of them at the same time. I'll do my best to hand out hat tips to the nice people who found them for me, as often as I can remember who that is. I'm hoping this will make things a little easier to find, and mean I keep a more reliable record of what I'm reading and a few brief thoughts on it. Fingers crossed you will find it interesting too, since thats about 80% of the purpose, so here goes:

First up is James (of the Campaign War Room) and his piece Creating an effective war room. This got picked up by Zen Pundit and is a really useful look at what it actually takes to run a war room in the political sense. Its a spectacularly overused term, and its good to have a set of criteria for what actually constitutes a war room, as opposed to what you read in the papers is a war room.

Hat tip to John Robb at GG for this piece in the New Yorker on Cyberwar. An excellent look at the sort of problems which are occuring as civilian and miliary staff try to figure out what the threat actually is, and more importantly, how the heck can they get all the money which will come from 'fixing' it?

IO9, a website which gets all too little credit for some of the more serious pieces it features, has a look at the way in which the Committees in the US House of Representatives are connected, and how those connections differ under Republican and Democratic leadership. Its an interesting look at how network theory can be applied to real world insitutions, and reveal things which would not otherwise be obvious. This is interesting not because the different structures arise from the top, but rather that it arises almost autonomously, and reflects the different ways in which the two parties do business.

German publishing company Springer Verlag are taking a shot at going in the opposite direction to the majority of the publishing industry, by allowing libraries to purchase DRM free books for distribution. My favourite line from the company comes in their statement, saying "Some of our competitors are afraid to do this, but we say, free the content" As the publishing industry knee jerks its way into the same problems as the music industry, its nice to see at least in this small area someone is being smart.

The Times is doing its best to lie manipulate statistics to show that their business model really is working, honest. What is clear is that somewhere around 105,000 people have, at some point paid at least £1 to access the Times website. Not really a win by anyones definition. But bless them for trying to put a positive spin on things.

The third round of the trial of Jammie Thomas-Rasset starts today. Rasset is the first person to make it to court due to the RIAA charging people with filesharing and so far, all its done is confuse the hell out of the legal system and demonstrate that there really is no consensus as to whether people like Rasset have committed a real crime or not, and what their punishment should be. Ars Technica has a great writeup and follow the story closely.

Small Wars Journal have a comprehensive selection of links about the Franco-British military pact which has emerged in recent days. More skilled minds than mine will give their view, but its an interesting topic.

I'll be closely following this series by Mountainrunner, a blogger who I've only recently been introduced to, but who is increasingly a staple of my reading habits. He intends to "explore our world of disappearing boundaries – from geographic to linguistic to time to organizational – that create new opportunities and challenges to agenda setting and influence" over a series of posts. I really want to do a full writeup of the first, but for now, I'd say go and check it out and see what you think.

And finally, David Betz has written a piece which deserves to be read just for the title alone. Strategy and the Singularity notes that the UK Strategic Defence Review has a line which reads: "Further game-changing technologies, such as artificial intelligence, advanced web applications, and possibly quantum computing, will become mainstream in the next twenty years." This seems a little far fetched of the writers, but Betz does raise some interesting points about what this might imply. Well worth checking out.

And thats all for now, I hope you found this list useful, it certainly will be for me.

Yemen and other frustrations

This isnt one of my most thoughtful pieces, but just me venting about some of terrorist related news which has been circling, and my endless frustration with the way the narrative runs on these things.

The UK is now demanding that the US shut down "hate websites" after it emerged that the woman who stabbed a Member of Parliament was radicalised, by Anwar al-Awlaki, a man implicated in the recent plane bomb plot, and is also believed to be responsible in part for the Fort Hood shootings.

First up, Yemen is a real problem, but the idea its suddenly become a problem is ridiculous. Its a country with massive systemic problems where the rule of law is essentially non existant. However, it is only the latest in what seems to be a growing line of countries which we're 'under threat' from, as we play our relentless game of whack-a-mole with terrorists.

The dialogue around Islamic fundamentalism never seems to get beyond the state, which is quite bizzare in a way, since the word used most often is "Islam", a religion which inherently transcends states.

Second, the idea that you can somehow 'shut down' the access people have to these figures is a little bit surreal. Islamic friends of mine used to get mailed cassette and video tapes with diatribes from "radical" preachers by friends on a regular basis. This wasnt being done in an attempt to radicalise them, but just something that well meaning friends did for each other. Even in the impossible hypothetical situation where you can get rid of this material from the internet, there will still be a thousand ways to get this information around.

Third, the plane bombs prove the essential point of terrorism. A small group of guys organise something pretty simple (sticking bombs in cargo planes), and the world responds by freaking out and talking about vastly complex and expensive mechanisms to prevent it happening again. What happens next week when they stick a bomb on a cargo ship? Will every piece of freight entering the UK have to be scanned? Because that is absolutely impossible.

Finally, when are we going to try something new? We're stuck in Afghanistan, we're finally mostly out of Iraq, but we're going into Pakistan steadily, and talking about going into Yemen. Of course Iraq might be getting bad again, according to some sources, so we might have to go back there at some point. And then there's Somalia, which no one wants to talk about, because its pretty awful too and a potential safe haven for bad people.

I have no answers for any of these points, but our collective knees have jerked so many times now that we're at severe risk of getting arthritis. There has to come a point at which the seemingly endless committment of more money, more people, more time, more effort, more draconian laws has to stop, if only because, right now, we're losing. Every time we have to spend one pound more on preventing terrorism than we did the day before is a day we lose.

I dont have any answers, clearly, this is really just a record of my frustrations first thing in the morning on a Wednesday.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Response: Systems Reboot

Since James was kind enough to ask for my opinion here goes...

Vodafone are undeniably in a rough spot at the moment, whatever the figure they owe, somewhere between £1.25bn and £6bn seems to be the reckoning. They've also got similar problems in India, where they owe yet more money (around £2bn) for a very similar deal. In these times of financial austerity the public have, unsurprisingly, reacted badly to this and stores across the UK were blockaded by protesters.

My personal feelings on the issue aside, the UK example is an interesting case in point about the growing power of smart mobs, and campaigns co-ordinated via the internet. Adding a second case study to the mix, the public protests I mentioned against Scientology by Anonymous, were run in much the same way as the Vodafone protests are now, so this is not something wildly new.

Social networking in this context is a wildly useful tool, it allows people to connect across wide areas, congregate virtually around a cause, psych each other up, and deploy campaigners to best effect. Of course all of this has been possible for quite some time, so I'm always critical of articles which point out that it's "twitter what won it". Twitter is the tool of the moment, and because its easy to access journalists get confused (as they so often do) about how important it is in organising things like this.

So I would advise that any discussion of this growing trend drop the rather obsessive disussion of "tools" (Facebook/twitter/digg etc) and focus more on what is actually happening.

What we are seeing, using a military analogy, is that more people are able to volunteer their time to a loose command and control system based on the internet. I say loose because often there are very few clear 'leaders'. This isnt always the case, UK think tanks and affiliated organisations are very good at taking a leadership position on an issue and mobilising public support. Case in point, the Electoral Reform Society, who have been quite integral to some of the pro-AV demonstrations which have been going on. There are also, often, informal groups who emerge in favour, or against, a particular 'thing'.

Its also worth pointing out that the media often get confused about who 'leads' an organisation. Anonymous provides us with a good set of examples of how the media have stuggled to classify the group, particularly with Fox news' and their wonderful "hackers on steroids" piece, where they dramatically miss the fact that most people who volunteer their time to Anonymous are not 'hackers' (a term the media doesnt understand to begin with), but are rather regular people out to have fun at someone else's expense.

The power of social media in the context of protest is twofold, first it creates an easily accessible medium for people to discuss the issue, and plan action. The medium increasingly trends towards a democratic organisational structure, as people are less likely to donate their time to an autocratic leadership who demand they do certain things.

The second is that social media allows very small numbers of people to co-operate over a greater distance than ever before. Its a force multiplier. The Vodafone protests were not thousands of people pouring onto the streets and storming Vodafone HQ, but rather dozens, in a couple of dozen locations shutting down individual stores. This is much harder to organise and much more interesting in garnering media exposure.

I personally think that the Vodafone protests have, due to media confusion, and the fact it taps into the zeitgeist pretty accurately, been taken as something new and exciting, wheras what they are in fact is simply a well co-ordinated example of the sort of flash mob which has been going on for years. However this doesnt mean they arent an interesting example, since they are clearly highly sophisticated and politically motivated, two things which are relatively (i.e. in the last few years) growing more common.

Going back to the original piece James highlighed on the Westborne website I think Maurice Cousins has made a good point:
As these protests have shown, along with the on-line backlash against BP and the Greenpeace campaign against NestlĂ©, businesses can no longer afford to rely on traditional, faceless PR tactics in their wider crisis communications strategies. Instead, British businesses are going to have to become more sophisticated – like their American counterparts – and be prepared to engage with all stakeholders in non-traditional theatres such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Failure to do so will lead to more than just a damaged reputation, but ultimately a loss of business.
He's absolutely right of course. These issues can be nipped in the bud much better if you are actually engaging with the people causing you problems, but you have to have people 'on the ground' so to speak in order to achieve it. Going onto the news and saying its all an 'urban myth' whilst admitting that you actually did withold £1.5bn is not the way to deal with it.

They could have changed the agenda substantially if they'd been willing or indeed able, to see the protests coming, and engage more directly with the emerging network at an early stage. Instead they chose the usual approach of going through old media and trying to slowly push back against the rumours which were generating discontent.

To deal with situations like this you need to be:
Strong: And by this I mean well organised, get your facts straight, own up where you have to, but get a good story in place and get it out there, to everyone, as much and as often as you can.

Agile: You've got to be able to turn on a dime, its no good if your leadership committee, which only meets on a thursday , is the one which signs off all your activity. You've got to have a war room style setup which can see the threat and take action, then and there.

Distributed: Tough for a big company, but an inevitable part of whats necessary. Act like the protesters, have people in place whose job it is to speak to these new networks, at the point of emergance, not when things kick off and you can't open your stores. Meet them at their level.
Bottom line, you can't get away with sitting in your ivory tower, talking to the same old journalists, and think anyone will care. This is a new world, old media is dead, and the old ways of protesting were dying years ago, something you only just noticed.