A Short Note on Twitter and the Media

From technology news website Recode:

But new data show that many news publications — including established outfits like the Post, the Miami Herald (owned by McClatchy), Buzzfeed and even Vox, as well as controversial alt-right hubs like InfoWars — were duped into citing… nefarious tweets in their coverage, perhaps unwittingly amplifying the reach of Russian propaganda in the process.

The Post was one of the most prominent news organizations to include the bogus, misleading tweets in their stories. On at least eight occasions since early 2016, the paper cited Twitter accounts that since have been pegged as Kremlin-sponsored trolls, according to an analysis by Recode with the aid of Meltwater, a media-intelligence firm.

Meanwhile, the Daily Beast is among a number of sites highlighting one particular example: that of “Jenna Abrams”:

Jenna Abrams had a lot of enemies on Twitter, but she was a very good friend to viral content writers across the world.

Her opinions about everything from manspreading on the subway to Rachel Dolezal to ballistic missiles still linger on news sites all over the web.

One website devoted an entire article to Abrams’ tweet about Kim Kardashian’s clothes. The story was titled “This Tweeter’s PERFECT Response to Kim K’s Naked Selfie Will Crack You Up.”…

Those same users who followed @Jenn_Abrams for her perfect Kim Kardashian jokes would be blasted with her shoddily punctuated ideas on slavery and segregation just one month later.

It now appears that Abrams was the creation of a Russian “troll farm”, much like the pro-Brexit “David Jones” Twitter account exposed by The Times in August.

These revelations are all in the public interest, but the focus on Russian conspiracies risks overlooking a broader story about how easy it is to manipulate the media with attention-seeking online behaviour and outright fakery. The Daily Beast‘s reference to “viral content writers” implies a frivolous sub-genre of entertainment journalism, when it seems to me that opinion quotes from random Twitter users (or even celebrities) are now regularly peppered through news stories for no particularly good reason – despite the fact that most people do not have Twitter accounts, and that the range of those who do is unlikely to reflect society as a whole.

Opinion quotes from Twitter figure prominently in stories for several reasons: journalists themselves use the platform, and so conclude it must be important; harvesting quotes is easier than actively seeking out interview subjects or authoritative statements; highlighting particular comments may allow a media source to editorialise by proxy or to give the impression that there is a consensus on an issue (in British tabloids, this consensus may be that the public is “outraged” about something or other); and drawing attention to a “controversial” comment is easy clickbait, even without a celebrity name attached it it.

Of course, opinion comments on Twitter (1) may generate stories of genuine interest, such as when a public figure expresses views that may influence a large following, or when a recognised expert gives their analysis. Indeed, users do not need credentials in order to provide insightful perspectives or witty commentary. However, it seems to me that the resource is being used lazily and without discernment. How many other “online personalities” like Jenna Abrams or supposed opinion writers are simply manipulative constructs?

The spotlight is on fake Russian trolls, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that advertisers, political parties, and simple con-artists and self-promoters are all implicated in this kind of thing.

Footnote

1. I distinguish here between “opinion” Tweets and Tweets that may be newsworthy as a primary source of information.

One Response

  1. Very good points.

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