A few weeks ago I stumbled across a blog article that made reference to how the stars of Channel Four’s Benefits Street had been receiving death threats online. Ordinarily I wouldn’t watch reality TV but the article made me curious about what on earth they could have shown that would provoke such a response. Upon watching the programme on 4OD I couldn’t help but feel that the commissioners of the show had been deeply irresponsible. Within a couple of minutes viewing it was apparent that it had been edited so as to provoke as much outrage as possible and viewers were being encouraged to vent their anger online: the hashtag #benefitsstreet flashed up frequently and a quick look on twitter confirmed that people had indeed been expressing their outrage in their thousands.
As I reached the end of the show I discovered that this was only one episode of many and that the next one would be looking at the situation of eastern European immigrants on the street. Given the types of threats and abuse that had been hurled at claimants after episode one, I had a genuine concern that something horrific was about to happen. But, as the week went on, I came to the realisation that although it was clear that some people had indeed been pretty horrible towards the shows participants (and benefit claimants in general), it wasn’t apparent that the nasty comments had been representative of viewers’ comments as a whole. There was talk of incitement and of ‘poverty porn’ in the media but it wasn’t clear to what extent viewers were responding with condemnation or with sympathy. What exactly was it that angered people so much? How would this anger play out when eastern European immigrants were introduced into the equation? And how many people were engaging with the show critically? I realised that I had some tools at my disposal that might help me to make sense of this and so I took it upon myself to attempt to arrive at a better understanding of what was going on.
As part of my research training I had been made aware of an add-on for Nvivo (a qualitative data analysis software package), that allowed a user to capture data from social media and import them into the software for coding and analysis. I had attempted to do this once before after Lee Rigby was murdered last year. I thought perhaps there was something that could have been learned from the way people had spontaneously responded online. The thought occurred to me about four hours after the event- I attempted to scroll back in time to capture tweets from the previous hours but soon realised that the sheer volume of tweets was more than either the browser or the add-on could handle. It kept crashing and I decided that if I ever wanted to capture thousands of tweets at some point in the future it would be sensible to do it in real time.
In looking over the first episode’s tweets a typing error revealed something else. Although Channel Four had been promoting the hashtag #benefitsstreet a few people (including me) had also typed in #benefitstreet (without the s). This meant there were fewer tweets to scroll back through. I followed the online ‘conversation’ back for episode 1 and noticed that lots of people had also been watching the show an hour later (on +1). I figured this would be a good time slot to aim for: it would mean that I could capture the thoughts of some people who had already seen the show (and tweeted afterwards) alongside the thoughts of people who were watching at the time (and tweeting as they watched). I also recognised that the hashtag would probably attract people who had decided not to watch the show at all but who had chosen to express an opinion about it by tweeting there too.
After my spelling mistake I decided to gather tweets (including re-tweets) from both #benefitstreet and #benefitsstreet. Having captured the data, and recognising that I only had so much time on my hands, I decided to focus in on the thirty minutes in the middle of the show (from 22.15-22.45). This half an hour saw 652 tweets under #benefitstreet and 4414 under #benefitsStreet, a total of 5066 tweets. I went through the data a couple of times, some key themes emerged which I then coded and counted up. I would not suggest that this is representative of wider society or that a similar breakdown would be seen for other episodes of the programme (or even for the same evening half an hour earlier). This is a breakdown of half an hour on Twitter on Monday the 13th of January 2014 between 22.15 and 22.45 – it can only speak for itself. The rest of this article explores what I found.
To begin with (as anyone with a twitter account will be aware) this isn’t exactly a forum that lends itself to in-depth discussions or sophisticated debate. When a user is limited to 140 characters there is only so much they can say, so it should come as no surprise that much of what is said is either nonsense or so generic that it defies classification. In the half hour of tweets that I examined people often just expressed some kind of unspecified exclamation that eluded further attempts to categorise them.
If they expressed some level of distaste it wasn’t immediately clear whether they were making reference to the existence of the programme, particular participants, the welfare state or immigration so I was unable to clearly categorise their thoughts on the matter.
It should also be noted that wisecracks are omnipresent. Though this episode had been edited in a way that effectively invited people to express their anger about the benefits system and immigration, that didn’t get in the way of people using the hashtag as an opportunity to joke about the show, scenes or characters within it.
Within the arena of ‘humour’ (or making fun of people) a couple of themes emerged. 100 Tweets (2%) were crude comments that made reference to one of the main characters’ breasts and weirdly, though the show is set in Birmingham, 78 tweets (1.5%) made reference to Liverpool, its inhabitants or supporters of the football club.
‘Humour’ aside, what had initially caught my attention about the show was that threats of violence had been made against the participants on Twitter, various segments of the media have highlighted this issue: a recent article in the Mirror has stated that a number of residents had been re-housed by Channel Four after ‘claiming’ (subtle use of language there) that they had received death threats. I had actually expected to find a lot of this kind of stuff but was pleasantly surprised to only discover 26 tweets of this nature (0.5%). Initially I thought there were 27 but I took the executive decision to exclude one on the basis that ‘Prince Charles’ was probably pulling our leg.
The lack of thousands of hate tweets might in part be explained by stories circulating about how the police had been investigating hate tweets after the previous episode.
I’d like to think that this wasn’t the only reason and work on the assumption that most people aren’t so easily swayed by an hour of ‘reality’ TV as to reach the point of calling for pogroms. Unfortunately there were still quite a few people that expressed a desire for violence to be inflicted upon some or all of the residents.
The last tweet in particular caught my attention. The use of such a precise quota seemed odd to me but there was also something in her profile that just didn’t seem to match up with her call to arms.
One of the main themes that emerged was of tweets directing immigrants to ‘go home’ or words to that effect. This was primarily though not exclusively directed at the Romanians who were featured in the programme. Unfortunately this was probably to be expected – the editorial team made the decision to show a clip where the father of the family noted that their life in Romania had been better than it was in the UK. In James Turner Street they were living in cramped conditions (a family of thirteen in a house built for four people), in a house where the gas had been cut off. They were gathering scrap metal to get by, struggling to survive, facing hostility from their neighbours and an impending eviction: I could see what the man was getting at – my personal hunch was that life was indeed much better in Romania. This context seemed largely irrelevant to many tweeters and so the xenophobic chorus erupted (332 tweets/6.5%).
There were also a few tweets in this category that were directed against a young couple who got married during that episode. Some of the other residents expressed their doubts about the couple’s love for each other and the legitimacy of the marriage; it would appear that this was sufficient evidence for some that they should be expelled from Blighty.
Immigrants Vs Claimants
After watching the second episode I anticipated that I would encounter lots of tweets where the British residents (who were the main focus of the first episode) would be condemned with reference to the Romanians. The first episode did not portray many of the participants in a flattering light, few if any were portrayed as working, or making a serious effort to find work. In contrast the second episode introduced two groups that were depicted as hard working. The first (the family mentioned above) worked as a team collecting scrap metal from rubbish. The second group of Romanians were also portrayed as hard-working to the point of being exploited by a ruthless gang-master who demanded seventeen hours of agricultural labour from them for £10 each (before they contacted the police about their predicament and then fled for fear of violent repercussions). It seemed to me that the producers of the show were effectively inviting viewers to make this kind of comparison and the tweets seemed to reflect this, I found 337 (6.6%) that appeared to buy into such a narrative.
That the Romanian migrant workers were working under such harsh conditions drew some attention from tweeters, 91 (1.8%) made reference to their poor remuneration or exploitation.
170 tweets (2.8%) expressed sadness, sympathy or pity for some or all of the residents. The main focus of these comments (122 tweets/ 2.4%) were one or both groups of Romanians.
Some also felt sorry for individuals on the street or the residents in general.
I was quite heartened that people had reacted with some sympathy given that I had been anticipating an unadulterated online hate-fest. There were however a few other themes that were to be expected from a television show of this kind.
On a programme called ‘Benefits Street’ you could be forgiven for anticipating reactions that would make reference to lazy people or scroungers. There were indeed lots of these kinds of references but (as we shall see shortly) they weren’t exclusively directed at the cast of the show, I counted 395 of these tweets (7.8%) that were directed at the programme’s participants.
As I went through the tweets I started to notice lots that referred to participants’ personal hygiene, implying that they were dirty, scruffy, scum or making comparisons with rats etc. In total there were 249 tweets (4.9%) that fell into this kind of category.
People on Twitter also appeared to have a problem with the residents’ spending choices. This was primarily directed against smoking, and then drinking but also included questions about the presence of other items such as cars on the street. I found 273 tweets that appeared to voice such concerns (5.4%).
Criticism of the Programme/ Producers/ Propaganda
As I was working my way through the data another theme emerged that I had anticipated, but I was quite surprised to discover that there were more tweets in this category than any of the previous ones that I have mentioned thus far. The tweets in this category were quite varied. They criticised the exploitative nature of the programme, called into question its representativeness of life on benefits, and made reference to how the producers had lied to the residents, bribed them with alcohol and cigarettes, or how they had put them at risk. Others mentioned petitions and invited people to protests against “Love Productions” office in London. I counted 489 tweets in this category (9.7%).
Within this category nearly half either insinuated or made direct reference to the notion that this was government “propaganda”, divide and rule, Tory party programming etc.
The idea that this was coalition propaganda was also dismissed by some. Seventeen tweets claimed that the programme had been produced by a Labour party supporter.
I’m not in a position to challenge or confirm this statement. However I do think that it’s fair to say that Benefits Street has something in common with a couple of DWP press releases about benefit fraud that were issued in May of 2011 and August 2013. These press releases also focussed on extreme, unrepresentative cases and sought to ridicule the subjects. The DWP’s message was based around the statement that there were “no excuses for stealing from the taxpayer”, Channel Four on the other hand purports to be revealing “the reality of life on benefits”.
A few in this category also made reference to the opening pages of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984.In the Two Minutes Hate the ‘enemy of the people’ Emmanuel Goldstein is shown on the screen and the audience are invited to explode in a collective outpouring of rage:
“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”
Having worked my way through 5000+ tweets on the matter I feel that this was a fair comparison to make but I was pleased to discover that this wasn’t the whole picture.
The biggest category by far was what I have chosen to refer to as balancing statements – 698 tweets (13.8%). This category included three main types of tweet. The first made use of the benefits street hashtags to refer to statistics presumably with the aim of contributing to a more balanced debate on the subject of welfare reform.
The second type appeared to attempt to promote balance in the debate by offering a counter narrative. Though I think it’s important to communicate facts as much as possible, I find myself wondering whether it changes anyone’s mind. Practically, if you cite the latest numbers on Twitter are people going to just take your word for it? If not, is it likely they will consult the DWP or ONS’s statistics themselves? There’s something I find quite interesting about people attempting to put things into perspective by using a picture or a few sentences.
The third kind within this group provided balance by using the hashtags to provide personal testimony about how the benefits system had helped them out in a time of need. This had primarily been organised through the “We All Benefit campaign” but lots of individuals decided to do this spontaneously too.
Though the main focus of episode 2 of Benefits Street focussed on the community living on James Turner Street in Winston Green, a number of other groups emerged as the targets of criticism on Twitter.
Politicians were openly criticised to the tune of 343 tweets (6.7%). Labour was mentioned directly 30 times (17 of those were about how the programme was made by a Labour supporter mentioned earlier). The rest were directed at the Tories, the government, specific Tory MP’s or politicians in general.
Individual Politicians also got mentioned frequently
Some also made reference to politicians spending taxpayers’ money on portraits
And on top of all that there were a lot of pictures
The royal family were also mentioned relatively frequently, I was quite surprised to find that a sizeable proportion of references to ‘scroungers’ referred to them – 143 tweets (2.8%).
Tax Avoidance was also mentioned quite frequently – 172 times (3.4%).
And so were bankers and banks – 48 tweets (0.9%)
As I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t think there are necessarily many broader conclusions that can be drawn from this particular investigation. My interest was in having a better understanding of what actually happens on Twitter when this kind of programme is on the air. Looking at episode 2 of Benefit Street it is clear that the hashtags attracted a number of competing viewpoints and that tweeters did not simply reserve their feelings of anger for the people that featured on the show. For anyone that made it this far I broke the numbers down into a graph below. Thanks for reading.