If you're like me, you get most of your news from online sources. Now this comes with its own set of hazards because there are a great many people who for some reason still subscribe to the belief that "if it's on the internet, it must be true," and a lot of online news outlets take advantage of this mindset and publish things that have a, shall we say, ambiguous relationship with the truth. This is seen most starkly in the fake news phenomenon that I wrote about after the 2016 election. At that time, the term "fake news" referred to blatantly fabricated stories making the rounds on social media designed to generate outrage, web traffic, or both. Now the term is used almost exclusively by president Donald Trump and his supporters to refer to news coverage that is displeasing to them regardless of its veracity.
Now I want to say that this shouldn't be taken to mean that all the negative coverage given to the president and his administration is true or justified; while a lot of it certainly is, there's more than a fair amount of it that is overblown or misrepresented. For example, the 2017 "controversy" over the way Kellyanne Conway had herself positioned on a couch in the Oval Office was one of the most bizarre things I've ever had the displeasure to watch unfold. When the Washington Post -- not exactly a hotbed of pro-Trump activity -- has to publish an article about this insanity, you know you've maybe gone a little too far in making something out of nothing.
And that really is the theme I want to touch on: making something out of nothing. Never in the history of humanity has there ever been as useful or as powerful a tool as the internet. Information and interaction are available on a scale that hardly anybody could have imagined just 40 years ago. Hell, maybe even 20 years ago; the perception that the internet was a passing fad had a lot of currency in the 1990s. And I guess in the grand scheme of things, it will be a passing fad, in the same way that human sacrifice and the dinosaurs were fads. On a long enough scale, everything is a passing fad. However, I'm getting off-track, so we'll have to revisit my solipsism some other time.
Anyway, we've come full circle in the public discourse about the internet. Whereas the internet was once entirely the playground of nerds, geeks, and a handful of entrepreneurs, it's now a great equalizer that virtually everyone in the industrialized world uses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a company's website was an afterthought; now it is usually the first and very often the last point of contact that the customer has with a company since e-commerce is rendering brick and mortar retail increasingly obsolete. Companies, agencies, and organizations invest untold piles of money into their electronic infrastructure and presence. This extends most visibly to the heavy emphasis placed on social media and the way a lot of these groups treat websites like Facebook and especially Twitter as the pulse of public opinion.
Before I go any further, I just want to throw this out there: I hate Twitter. I'm not a huge fan of social media in general, but I do use Facebook because it's a convenient way for me to talk to friends and relatives. Twitter, however, is a concept that completely turns me off. It's probably not very smart of me to expect to have meaningful or important conversations over social media, but Twitter in particular seems to encourage all the worst traits associated with internet culture, specifically the grandiose blasting of uninformed opinions in bite-sized posts limited to 280 characters. Fittingly, this makes Twitter the ideal platform for a wide spectrum of flawed attempts at research.
I'm going to create a hypothetical Twitter user named DarthSephiroth420 who likes Star Wars, Final Fantasy, and getting blazed. DarthSephiroth420 tweets out the following: "Sprite is the worst soda ever made #spritesucks." Somehow or another, his hashtag catches on and you start seeing all these testimonials from other users about how terrible Sprite is and before you know it, #spritesucks is the most trending topic on Twitter. Coca-Cola should be shaking in their boots now because people on the internet are rising up against their lemon-lime soft drink that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste and frequently fails to be refreshing in any meaningful sense of the word.
The revolt spreads and soon BuzzFeed is talking about it (the story itself is sandwiched between "Disney Princesses reimagined as concentration camp victims" and "Avocados are proof that God exists and He wants us to take pictures of every fucking meal we eat"). Huffington Post picks it up and soon it's on TV. MSNBC runs a story about how Sprite is giving diabetes mellitus to minorities and the poor while FOX News finds a Sprite ad from 2002 that says "happy holidays," showing that Sprite is a soldier (or perhaps an unlawful enemy combatant) in the War on Christmas. Sprite is doomed!
Except...it's not. Sales of Sprite are essentially the same because all the people who hated Sprite before already didn't buy it. We already know that there are people out there who don't like Sprite because there's no product that literally everybody likes. The people who like Sprite keep buying it because, well, they like it. So where's the story?
There isn't one. But because Twitter makes it very easy to track trending topics -- in this case, #spritesucks -- anyone can look at how many tweets have the hashtag and construct a narrative around it. It doesn't really matter that it's a completely insignificant topic, it seems like it's a big deal because a handful of people on a social media platform made it into one. In the past, a slow news day would feature stories about cats being stuck in trees or a celebrity tripping over his shoelaces. Now it's trending hashtags.
But even worse than using Twitter as a place to get topics for news articles is the use of Twitter to actually write the articles. This is becoming an incredibly common and lazy way for news publications to get stories out. It's not hard to see the appeal: news sites have to constantly release new content even if there's nothing really going on in the world, so if the stories are practically already written for you, it relieves some of the workload. Take this Huffington Post article from August 11, 2018: 'Text Massages' Typo Turns Donald Trump into a Twitter Laughingstock. If you don't feel like reading it, the article relates to a tweet that Trump wrote where he typed "text massages" instead of "text messages." The story features three tweets from Trump and 12 tweets from various Twitter users mocking the president for his typo. It contains only 7 sentences of original text.
Now the real story here should be that the sitting President of the United States is casting aspersions on the integrity of the FBI over his social media account. But there's nothing new there, he's been doing that for a while. So instead of tracking his history of undermining the credibility of America's most important investigatory and law enforcement body and providing a thoughtful analysis of why this is probably not a good thing (or, if you're so inclined, why it's great for democracy), we get an "article" that is all about people making fun of him for misspelling the word "messages."
Again, from Huffington Post on the same day: Stephen King Causes Meme Meltdown with Trump 'Space Force' Twitter Request. This features a tweet from author Stephen King, 16 tweets from twitter users, and a whopping five sentences from the purported "author" of the piece.
From Deadline, August 12, 2018: President Donald Trump Tweetstorm - the Sunday Edition. Four sentences and four Trump tweets.
I could keep going, but I'm sure you get the point and I have no doubt you have probably run across innumerable articles of this type on your own. The fact that all these articles I've mentioned are related in some way to Donald Trump isn't coincidental, but I don't think it's entirely related to political bias on the part of these media outlets. Indeed, I'm sure if you looked around, you could probably find pro-Trump articles done in the same format. And of course there are many articles of this sort that don't relate in any way to Donald Trump.
The easiest explanation would be to say "Trump uses Twitter as his personal press office, so of course the media is going to follow suit and use Twitter as a major source of information." But I think that reverses the cause and effect relationship; articles like this were increasing in prominence even before the election. I think Trump's use of Twitter in this way was a reaction to preexisting trends in reporting, his own prior use of the platform notwithstanding.
Not surprisingly, the most complete pictures of Twitter's users come from marketing firms and business-related publications. We can learn from here, for example, that Twitter has about 330 million monthly active users, that about 21% of American adults use the platform, that about 80% of their users are "affluent millennials," that about half of their users live in a city or a suburb, and that users are pretty evenly split between men and women. This means that while Twitter ostensibly seems like a great place to find out what people are thinking, what you're really getting is a view of what a relatively narrow demographic thinks. If 21% of Americans use Twitter in some way, that's impressive, but that still leaves 79% of Americans (primarily those who aren't millennials, who don't live in urban/suburban areas, and who don't have a lot of money) who don't use it.
And really, this ties into another reason why I don't like Twitter: I have always viewed it primarily as a platform for advertising, whether that's for products or for celebrities (many of whom are selling products). The actual interactions that people are supposed to have on Twitter are secondary to the main function of selling shit. Facebook and most other social media platforms do the same thing, of course, because the user is what's for sale on any service that's free. But Twitter has always struck me as the most transparently commercial of these entities. The character limit (previously 140 characters, but since expanded) is perfect for product pitches and taglines. As for substantive commentary? SMH.
Returning to one of the first points I brought up, even supposedly credible news organizations have fallen into the trap of believing everything they read on the internet. In 2017, the BBC came under fire for using tweets from what is apparently a parody account while reporting on the coup in Zimbabwe. The account satirizes the propaganda of Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF political party and while there was not really any damage done by this reporting, it's still pretty remarkable that in the quest to get the scoop, one of the world's oldest continuously-operating news services would use this as a source. The implicit acceptance of Twitter as a reliable source of information -- especially when combined with something that looks "official" like this parody account -- managed to get the BBC to turn off what should be their well-honed sense of skepticism.
None of this is to say that content on Twitter can't or shouldn't be news. By virtue of the fact that he's the president, Donald Trump's tweets are almost by definition newsworthy. If Trump were to publicly support DarthSephiroth420's hypothetical #spritesucks campaign, it would be news because the American president ripping apart a product made by an American company would be questionable for several reasons. But the real importance of such a thing would likely be lost in the reporting on the subject which would likely consist of the original tweet, Trump's tweet, five or six lines about the tweet, then 10 tweets from random people reacting to the other tweets.
The idea that this format constitutes news or journalism is at best a mistaken interpretation of the importance of social media and at worst a cynical and lazy way to aggregate content for the express purpose of generating clicks and therefore ad revenue. Because it is so distressingly common among people and publications who really ought to know better, I can only conclude that it's more of the latter than the former. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that this style of "writing" will continue on for quite some time if for no other reason than it requires little to no effort. It will also inevitably mean that actual journalists and writers will become less needed over time since these "articles" write themselves.
The only possible light at the end of the tunnel is the fact that Twitter is unprofitable and there does not seem to be any real plan in place to change that. If Twitter ceases to exist, it won't be possible to lazily compile tweets and pass them off as news stories. But it's not going to happen anytime soon. Twitter helped kill MySpace, so whatever eventually replaces Twitter will likely be even worse. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to see what's trending on Twitter so I can write 75 words about it and submit it to HuffPo as my first professional news article.