How One Twitter User Rallied Critics Of Daily Mail And Liz Jones To Raise £25k For East Africa Appeal

First Posted: 06/08/2011 15:32 BST Updated: 06/10/2011 11:12 BST

When it was revealed last week that the Daily Mail's controversial fashion writer and columnist Liz Jones was heading to Somalia to report on the famine in East Africa, some thought that it must have been some kind of joke.

The trip, which was described as both a genuine attempt to cover the famine (by Jones herself), and a "jaunt" that smacked of the "grotesque" (by others), did not go well even before she arrived.

An article written by Jones, in which she accused NHS staff of not caring about the African famine, was widely seen, to put it mildly, as missing the point.

And the source of much of the criticism, as usual, was the social network Twitter, where Jones has become something of a constant presence, despite not tweeting herself, due to her talent for dividing opinion on topics ranging from third-world labour conditions to lipstick.

As such it might not seem too surprising that within hours a satirical account had been sent up (@LizJonesSomalia) which purported to be authored by Jones as she made her way across the country. Neither might it seem surprising that the account received thousands of followers.

What is surprising, however, is that when the true author of the account, the anonymous user who also writes the long-running @DMReporter, revealed the hoax and began a drive to raise money for the Disasters Emergency Committee East Africa Appeal, Twitter responded with even greater enthusiasm.

The account has now raised more than £25,000 for the appeal, and hopes to raise even more before its self-imposed Sunday deadline. You can donate to the appeal here.

The creator of the account spoke to The Huffington Post UK to tell us about the project.

How did the original Daily Mail Headlines account come about?

I started the Daily Mail Twitter account first, because I got a bit sick of making silly jokes and annoying everybody with opinionated views on my normal account. So I set it up thinking I could take the piss out of the Daily Mail a little bit, have a bit of fun. It's quite an enjoyable thing to do. 

What inspired you to develop the separate Liz Jones In Somalia account?

When Liz Jones went to Somalia I thought at first 'oh, that's a great running theme for a week'. But the idea of prefixing each Tweet with 'Liz Jones In Somalia' seemed a bit annoying, so I set up a separate account, just to see what happened.

Why is the Daily Mail a good target for this type of satire?

They're good targets because they are kind of parodies in themselves. I mean, the Daily Mail is not as right wing as people seem to think, but it knows how to get attention. And while I don't find their news so offensive, I do find the commentary offensive. It seems like they are deliberately pushing buttons and goading people. They deliberately mislead their readers. They avoid facts, change information… Richard Littlejohn famously is capable of quoting a reader's letter that says something has happened, and then writing an entire article about the fact that Christmas is being cancelled. Again... I find their factually dubious reporting worthy of parody and a little bit offensive.

Is Liz Jones a new obsession or have you followed her for a while?

She is a character, and she plays a character in her columns. I can't believe she is really as obnoxious as she comes across. And there is nothing wrong with playing that character, but when you take it out into the real world you have to be a bit careful with how it's portrayed. Sending her to Glastonbury is quite amusing. But when you start seeing if she can live on benefits, it just seems a little bit distasteful. And the idea of sending her to Somalia is just crass. That situation deserves more respect. It deserves a more serious approach. 

How quickly did the account attract followers, and was the aim always to gather funds for the DEC?

At the beginning I was actually just treating it like a literary endeavour. I thought it would be funny to start the week with horrible crassness and then gradually move round to her dawning realisation that the centre of the story wasn't her. I thought that would be an interesting experiment. The last Tweet was going to be the link to the DEC campaign website. And then within the first day, in which I had 3,000 followers, I thought "crikey, this is going a lot better than I expected". Then I realised we could actually use this as a way to bring in funds. 

Why did you impose a week's time limit? (The account will post its last Tweet on Sunday August 7)

I've just always been a fan of those zeitgeist-y accounts that arrive, everyone finds them hilarious for a week or two and then they go again. I hoped to harness that and find a way to use that constant Tweeting of outrage about Daily Mail stories and make it something positive. 

How much have you raised?

We've just made it, as of Saturday morning, over £25,500 including gift aid. Which is phenomenal.

How many individual donors is that?

It's around 2,000.

How much of your time has it taken up?

It's probably been my main job, but I'm self-employed and had quite a good run last month so I had the time.

Do you find it difficult writing in the voice of your satirical Liz Jones persona?

Well, I'm not a mean person. And it was quite difficult in the first few days when I got a lot of Tweets from people who didn't know it was a joke. The humour is really close to the bone, and it could seem offensive to some people. And that was difficult. But I think satire should cut so close to the bone that it should burn the edges of it. If you're not versed in Twitter-speak, and aren't able to read between the lines you could miss the point and I understand that. Or if you're not a big English-speaker. I had quite a few people from Somalia get in touch with me and asking 'why are you doing this?' and as often as possible I would explain that my intention wasn't to insult their culture, and that if they gave me a few days it would all become clear. But on the other side two-thirds of people at least got it.

Do you think the criticism of Liz Jones' work can sometimes be unfair?

I think it can be very unfair, certainly, but she goes out her way to invite it sometimes. Just as I tried very hard not to make the famine the butt of any jokes, I tried also not to be malicious towards her. I really just wanted to play on the public character that she puts out. Everything I've ever referenced or claimed that she has said or done has come from stuff she's already published. If you've read her NHS article - if someone is going to write that, with that supreme arrogance, they need to be brought down a peg or two.

Do you get sick of reading her work for research?

I'll be honest with you - I'll be happy when the week is out. But you can take it with a pinch of salt. I just don't think she's real. I think she's trying to deliberately rile people, and is very good at it, and is paid to create controversy… The daily burst of hate the Daily Mail gives you allows you to feel better about yourself. 

You've been doing this anonymously, but is there any part of you that wishes you could reveal yourself??
No. To be truthfully honest. On the rare occasion I've been congratulated for anything I've done I basically go beetroot red and look at my shoes. I prefer it being anonymous, I think it works better.

Is there anyone else you want to thank or mention?

The rest of the Twitter community. They took the idea, understood it instantly and took it on board. The constant retweeting and level of support was staggeringly important to getting donations raised. The folks who followed and retweeted were amazing. People donated hundreds of pounds, they sold stuff to fund donations, they embraced the aim of using satire for good, and that was really the point after all. Charity campaigning on Twitter often just revolves around asking celebrities to retweet donation pages, and I'm really happy that we managed to find a new system that works. I viewed it as a sponsored tweet-a-thon and that people were so willing to dig deep for that says a tremendous amount about the communal spirit that can be Twitter.

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