23/02/2012 – Started with a tweet
The government has been fire-fighting this week, following claims that its work experience scheme for unemployed young people is tantamount to "slave labour". Sainsbury's, Waterstone's and TK Maxx have all pulled out of the scheme, whilst Tesco have now said they will offer people the chance to take up paid work whilst on the scheme, instead of staying on benefits. The row stems from a job advertisement placed on the official Directgov website, which appeared to show Tesco offering a nightshift position with a rate of pay of jobseeker's allowance plus expenses.
The advert was published via Twitter last week and within hours, was being circulated widely around Facebook and other websites and blogs. The immediate response from Tesco was that it had been placed by mistake. However, protests occurred at different Tesco's stores and despite Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling publicly defending the scheme, the row has refused to go away. Edit 24.02.12 In a rather bizarre twist this morning, Chris Grayling made claims on Radio 4 that the campaign is being organised by "a small number of activists" and that his own email account has been hacked in order to send a complaint to Tesco. He later had to clarify the hacking comment, as it was not true. Side stepping the actual ethics of the work experience scheme, this has really demonstrated the potentially powerful impacts of social media in breaking, and then pushing, news stories, particularly if Mr Grayling's comments about it all stemming from a small number of activists are taken into account.
The power to highlight perceived injustice on a specific issue and to garner wider support seems to be something that is becoming more of a feature of everyday life. Last year, social media was variously praised for its role in the Arab Spring and condemned for its use in the civil unrest in England. Yet, what we've seen this week is somewhere in between those two extremes, in my opinion. Indeed, the issue of young jobseekers and work experience was raised last year, but did not attract a similar storm.
Lasa experienced its own mini-Twitter storm in January, through our rightsnet website. An adviser posted a discussion thread about one of her clients who had been found fit for work by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The only problem was that the man in question was in a coma. His wife had been told to send a claim form to an incorrect address and as a result, DWP made the decision that he wasn't entitled to benefit.
The thread was picked up by campaigners on welfare reform about a week after it was published. Overnight, there were more than 18,000 views of the thread and a great deal of media interest. Thankfully, the adviser came back and said DWP had quickly changed their decision but this shows how quickly news can be shared around interested parties and I would like to think the thread played a part in resolving that situation.
Similarly, a group of disability activists published an online report, Responsible Reform, which challenged the official government line on proposals for changes to disability benefits. Using a Twitter hash tag of #spartacusreport, the report went viral as hundreds of thousands of people shared its contents. In a House of Lords debate on the Welfare Reform Bill that week, the report was repeatedly referenced by peers who voted through various amendments to the Bill (although all overturned in the Commons unfortunately).
Again, this is a prime example of ordinary people mobilising support and joining up with others from around the country to lobby and campaign against perceived unfairness. Many people hold the view that social media is a good time waster, something for a celebrity obsessed world to share what we're wearing or what we're eating. I'd like to think that recent events show us that it can be much more than that. When used in a thoughtful and positive way, and especially when linked to a co-ordinated campaign as with the Responsible Reform report, it can give everyone the chance to have a voice and push for positive change in society, which in my view, cannot be a bad thing at all.
Posted by Terry Stokes