Revenge of the Nerds

This week’s Net Office went live today. You can read the raw copy here, or go to the NS for the finished version:

At the beginning of the speech that was eventually to get him sacked, Professor David Nutt defines a drug as “an exogenous substance, something that comes from outside a person, goes into them and produces physiological changes”. By the time his well-balanced observations into the pressures that affect drug policy in the UK had been ingested, digested and disseminated by the mainstream news media, it too had undergone various physiological changes, emerging as a highly politicised attack. One can’t help wondering whether the Home Secretary re-read the speech before issuing Nutt with his marching orders.

Ministers tend to justify down-playing the scientific evidence on drug harm by the need for drug policy to “send a signal” to young people. So it’s worth asking over which network they think they’re broadcasting. The mainstream media play ball, being over 200 times more likely – according to evidence cited by Nutt – to report a death from taking ecstasy than a death from taking Paracetemol. But compared to politicians, both scientists and young people are more at home online, the former being early adopters and the latter digital natives. So how did the Government’s actions play out on the web? What signals did the sacking of David Nutt send?

The week the story broke, the US-based community news portal Reddit registered it as two of its three most popular news threads in World Politics, with support for Nutt or condemnation of the Government featuring heavily in the more than 1,500 comments each thread attracted. The story also hit the front page of Fark, a satirical community news site known to attract 4 million visitors a month. Meanwhile, on Facebook, a group demanding the reinstatement of Professor Nutt and more evidence-based drug laws was set up by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, and attracted over 6,000 members in one weekend.

The right of reply, combined with the ease with which hypertext and search allow readers to verify facts using primary sources, means that even if “signals” do work offline, they don’t work online. If the Government really do wish to target the young, they’ll need to think up better ideas than sacking their expert dissenters. To give Nutt the last word: “The internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell [kids] the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source.”

Comments are closed.