Saturday, August 15, 2009

Twitter And The NHS (#welovetheNHS)

I've read countless articles and listened to numerous people insist that Twitter is nothing more then a fad and, more importantly, that it has no real value to offer. As a Twitterer myself I am fairly aware of exactly what place Twitter holds and exactly how it can be effectively used by public and commercial endevours. In the past week Graham Linehan, writer and creater of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, may have done more than any other person to prove exactly what Twitter is capable of, and how one person can use it to really achieve something.

At the beginning of the week the 'We love the NHS' campaign burst onto Twitter. Linehan created the movement as a stand against recent claims about the NHS made by right wing supporters in the US, such as Glenn Beck of Fox News, hoping to stall and hinder Barack Obama's healthcare plans. The campaign has already attracted tens of thousands of users to pledge their support for the British health system, and received individual acknowledgement and support from Gordon Brown.

Brown tweeted "[the] NHS often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death".

Sarah Brown, his wife, and a host of prolific Twitter users such as Stephen Fry and Dara O'Briain has also given their own support, reinforcing the place that national healthcare systems have. Linehan himself said "[that] One of the benefits of the internet in general and Twitter specifically is that, for the first time in history, humanity is able to have a global conversation. People like Beck used to be able to spout lies about other countries without any fear of people outside the USA listening in and correcting him. But everything's different now, and I thought that if we got ‘We love the NHS’ to become a trending topic, it might act as a counterweight against the lies of the American right, who are being particularly obnoxious at the moment."

Having said all this, what Linehan did was not without risk. Linehan said "I was a little bit worried that, because no health care system on earth is absolutely perfect, the trend might fill up with lots of negative stories. But to my amazement, the response was almost 100 per cent positive. There were, of course, people who weren't happy with their experiences, but there were so few that I was able to reply to those people and remind them that I wasn't saying the NHS was perfect, just that it was better than the US system."

The whole campaign was kick started with a pretty simple tweet: " #welovetheNHS". The link he posted sent his followers to an article that attempted to link Stephen Hawking to the failings of the NHS. The article #FAILED hugely when Hawking himself responded: "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS". Linehan followed up with another simple tweet, a request to "Please retweet all your NHS love using the hashtag #welovetheNHS".

As the campaign grew and grew, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan went on Glenn Beck's Fox News show to giving his support to Glen's attack on the NHS. Linehan retorted, saying "People in the UK are fiercely proud and protective of the NHS, and however much they moan and gripe about it, you attack it at your peril. I have a feeling that Daniel Hannan is about to find this out the hard way."

He followed this up, telling Channel 4 News, "The healthcare debate in the America has been hi-jacked by some very loud and obnoxious people who have a financial interest in keeping the status quo. They are being helped by some of the worst blow-hards you can imagine – Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. There are raising the temperature of the debate to a dangerous level. Glenn Beck thinks he can spread lies and no-one will notice but it is a very connected world now. I think this show of support can provide ammunition for those people who are fighting back against the scare stories in America. Everyone has a story about the NHS helping them in some way. It's important to us, we may slag it off a lot but it's ours. The lesson for any future government who might want to mess with things is to step carefully – attack the NHS at your peril. If the American Right had not used such ridiculous arguments to get their point across it wouldn't have taken off like it did – but by saying things like Stephen Hawking wouldn't have lived under the NHS…it's like if you criticise your parents. You can do it – but if someone else does it you will murder them. There are a lot more shades to this subject than Fox News would have you believe. The most important thing to remember about the Right in America is that they hate Obama more than anything, the idea that he could be successful on his healthcare plans is not acceptable to them."

So where has all this led? What exactly has been achieved?

As it turns out the desire of the British public to defend the NHS against politically motivated criticism from the US is very strong. Tens of thousands of supportive tweets later, the full implication of what Linehan started have reached well beyond cyberspace. Tory leader David Cameron and the shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley have openly and publically criticised Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan. Cameron has called Hannan an "eccentric" whose views do not hold true with the party as a whole. Timothy Kirkhope, the leader of the Conservative group in Europe and Hannan's boss, has said that he would like to see Hannan disciplined for his comments of the NHS. Kirkhope confirmed that the chief whip in Brussels would give Hannan a "stern talking-to".

Ultimately Linehan has summed up the whole experience best, saying "[I think] Twitter is a useful tool for this kind of action. I very much enjoy debunking the opinions of Luddite broadsheet columnists such as Jackie Ashley [who attacked Twitter in the Guardian] who see fit to disparage the service even though they obviously have absolutely no idea what it is. Though I can sympathise with people like Jackie - it must be terrifying to see the world changing so quickly and have no idea what exactly those changes mean, especially when it's supposedly your job to be on top of things!"

He added: "With Twitter everyone is a broadcaster, in terms of their own life. A lot of people have criticised it for being superficial, but the more interesting the people on Twitter are, the more interesting the service is. Twitter stepped up to the plate over the NHS. Like in Iran, where it provided a human face for the protests there. I have been getting annoyed by think pieces in newspapers who criticised the service but don't really know how it works – they use their laptops predominantly as a light."

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