By: Beatrice Beirne
Twitter has become a vast, compact resource for everything that’s happening. We use it for our Kanye updates, our Kim K updates, our Kylie Jenner updates and, increasingly, our news. But, relying on a sole website — a corporation, really — to tell us what we should care about is a dangerous habit.
Twitter functions on a trending-based presentation of news, effectively marginalizing stories that do not receive the attention they need and deserve. Our busy, bustling world has made us very attracted to the fleeting gratification attached to popular “news,” and has seeded great reliance on trending to tell us what is important. The practice of ranking our news leads to inaccuracy and polarization in our media, and causes significant destruction to our ability to engage in civil discourse and access news of any integrity.
In order for a subject to “trend” on Twitter, it must be among the most tweeted-about subjects. The number of tweets does not actually matter, though; it’s the rate at which those tweets are being published that enables it to appear as “trending”. Unfortunately, just because more people are talking about a topic does not necessarily mean it is substantial or relevant.
Twitter ranks stories based on popularity, not necessarily cultural importance. Think of the trending bar as the Westminster Dog Show: a dog receives more widespread visibility when a group of people talk enough about it and assert its prominence, even though most people would agree that all the dogs are precious and deserving of ten thousand hugs. The more people are talking about one dog, the more more people will talk about it.
This is how Twitter functions: presenting attention as a scarce resource. It forces us to rank news instead of encouraging holistic consumption of content with personal relevance or cultural significance. The importance of current events can only be calculated by the number of hashtags, never truly known.
Take February 4th, 2018, the day of Super Bowl LII. Top trending topics in the US included the game, Justin Timberlake, Prince, Kylie Jenner, Stormi, Donald Trump, the FBI, Tom Brady, Amtrak, Paul Manafort, China, Cold War, Uma Thurman, Harvey Weinstein, Syria, Moscow, Paul Ryan and minimum wage. The incessant dance of names and events across the trending line on Twitter proves one thing: not everything gets the attention it deserves. We prefer to live in the excitement of the future instead of dwelling on the predictability of the present; we crave the mystery of the unknown as opposed to the misery of last week.
Twitter uniquely offers us this fleeting gratification and gives any single person the ability to present their 280-character ideas on the same exact platform as the President of the United States, the Pope and Chrissy Teigen. It seems like a perfect venue for a democracy, where everyone gets an equal voice to express themselves. The metaphor is perfect, even to the point of marginalization.
The phenomenon of being satiated by the minimal, online agency of liking or retweeting an inaccurate but emotionally powerful source is a dangerous effect of using Twitter as a news source. The conversion of a retweet to topical expertise is inappropriate, as genuine integrity is willingly and explicitly compromised for the sake of ease. Our competitive news environment — one of privilege and power — efficiently works to marginalize even the most prominent stories.
Being pushed “into the shadows” is a perplexing and often vague concept: what do we know about what we don’t know in the known world of the unknown? There are three primary, unintended and consequential effects of competitive news: it shadows stories, it internally marginalizes participants and it perpetuates the power social storytellers have over cultural narratives.
Twitter is modeled to reward the most popular topics with more visibility which, logically, can shadow other stories. #MeToo is an exceptionally beneficial online movement that gives victims a tool to speak and others a glimpse into the realities of experiencing sexual harassment, but it wasn’t always as prominent as today. Tarana Burke started the hashtag in 2006 — more than a decade before allegations against Harvey Weinstein rocketed it to the top of the trending bar. This movement is one of many that must contend with other, equally as important content everyday to gain — and maintain — visibility. When one trend rises, its prevalence draws attention away from others: yet one topic’s necessary popularity should not diminish the attention we give to another. Even so, inside the #MeToo movement, things are not perfect.
When allegations broke about Harvey Weinstein, the quasi-patriarch of men taken down by their sexual assault, his name was regularly atop the trending list but rarely were any of his accusers’, including Uma Thurman, Salma Hayek, Lupita Nyong’o and Ashley Judd. These women became part of his story, and the complexity of their situation was reduced to a buzzword. If we look at #MeToo as a story about Harvey Weinstein, we forget not only the celebrities he has assaulted, but the millions of women that also face sexual assault and do not have the social capital to fight back. When stories are hallmarked by a single person or word, their messages become perverted and our interpretations of what is important is flawed.
When stories are hallmarked by a single person or word, their messages become perverted and our interpretations of what is important is flawed.
But, Twitter can also be the epicenter of valuable and effective social change — whether through positive or negative origins. In the now-infamous Babenet article, Aziz Ansari’s questionable exchanges with an unnamed woman birthed great controversy between what is and is not sexual assault. Some claimed the actor should be treated with the swift justice Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer saw. Others, in a New York Times op-ed, felt Ansari was “guilty, of not being a mind reader”. There was so much conflict because we as a society have not decided on what words mean and what the truth is.
The visibility of the Ansari story on Twitter enabled people to begin discussing the difference between “assault” and “misconduct”; “accident” and “intent”. If we let our stories about intercourse span beyond sexual assault allegations, then we can actually have a sex-positive society. We can prevent the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world and honor the Uma’s, Salma’s, Lupita’s, and Ashley’s if we choose to tell their stories, not oogle over his.
We as a society evolve significantly when we can debate the implications of our news, not its validity. However, Twitter still has some barriers, besides trending, that make it difficult to access accurate news that is reported earnestly. Polarization of our news is a primary effect of Twitter: if we can’t agree on what stories need to be told, which versions are correct, how much significance they hold and even what actually happened, then our news creeps farther and farther away from the truth and — equally as important — the center.
We as a society evolve significantly when we can debate the implications of our news, not its validity.
Polarization of news is a major problem not only because it distorts facts, but because it inaccurately asserts that factual events can have an ideological bias. They cannot. Polarizing and weaponizing news can marginalize both the content of stories and the messages they carry and, on Twitter, there are voices that rise from the confusion to take hold of cultural narratives. Three major parties can be blamed for marginalization through perpetuating the power of social storytellers: corporations, trolls and ourselves.
Corporations use Twitter as a space to both overtly advertise and establish relationships with customers. Companies can spend billions of dollars a year on sponsored trending and camouflaged ads in order to reach their target demographics. This monetization of social media, however, becomes increasingly problematic when brands blindly or brazenly intersect with social movements. Infamously, DiGiorno’s Pizza hijacked the #WhyIStayed conversation, which gave survivors of domestic abuse an opportunity to explain the difficult decisions they had faced. The company tweeted, “#WhyIStayed because you had pizza,” gaining explosive backlash.
Corporations on Twitter can either blemish social conversations or attempt to dictate what users see and believe. While corporations operate on social media for financial gain, their presence is dwarfed by the nefarious intentions of trolls.
“Troll” can be loosely defined it to mean an aggressive online user. Trolls can range from an angry Tasty commenter to a hacker breaching Equifax’s data to @ThetaClair, a “Southern sister with the spirit of 1776” Twitter user that sparked collegiate controversy.
@ThetaClair had a profile that embodied your “stereotypical” sorority girl: flashy photos, friendly faces and a fun-filled life. However, each Starbucks photo was capped with an Islamophobic jab; each boyf candid included a deeply disturbing assertion regarding gender stereotypes.
Upon discovering the account’s inexplicable origins and use of stolen photos, “Buzzfeed” found that @ThetaClair was “one of a handful of seemingly phony Twitter accounts that use images and stereotypes of white women to promote pro-Trump, anti-feminist, white nationalist, white supremacist, and/or neo-Nazi rhetoric.” This was not satire nor social commentary; this was a consciously constructed deception that sought to divide people online through bigotry.
But, the account was not alone. A massive portion of Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump Administration’s “potential” collusion with Russia is based on the fact that known Russian trolls developed fake accounts, events, organizations and movements, with the sole purpose of starting conflict and violence between opposing factions in America. According to the New York Times, counterfeit black power accounts, such as Blacktivist, and unreal white-supremacist ones, like Heart of Texas, held more followers than their real-life counterparts. The Russian-puppeted pages made vastly fraudulent claims, such as promoting fake rallies against police brutality and encouraging Texas’ secession from the United States. These trolls wanted to stir up racial tension and incite violence in America, and our attraction to competitive news made it possible.
When it comes down to it, we are to blame for how we act. We consume news and we consciously choose whether or not to verify its validity. We must take responsibility by prioritizing accuracy and integrity in our news and how we access it.
Accuracy matters. Yet in a world dominated by trending, it can sometimes be difficult to figure. What can we do to maintain truth and integrity in our news, and not allow the competition of Twitter to exclusively write our cultural narratives? Well, it will take logging off, signing up and shelling out.
We can refocus our news consumption with logging off Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat, or anywhere else we get our glitzy, second-hand “journalism”. Use Twitter to participate in and learn about social conversations, but stick to the basics, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, CBS and the BBC, for your news. These articles are published by paid journalists and respected institutions, not clickbait offering the quickest ways to lose 30 pounds in 30 days.
If you still need to get your ranking fix, theweek.com/10things provides a comprehensive yet compact list of the top 10 things you need to know before starting your day. Staying away from polarized and competitive websites can help refine your palate for news.
Take initiative and choose to be informed. Sign up for news sources and news commentary alike. Consciously observing the way in which topics are approached on Fox News versus in Buzzfeed can illustrate the minute ways in which polarization molds every aspect of nearly all stories. Promoting a diverse consumption of news and news commentary enables tolerance and respect on readers’ behalves. Use polarized sources to understand marginalization, not to practice it.
Finally, is shelling out. The transition to primarily online media means that stories are easier to share, websites are easier to fake and journalists are forced to invent sexier titles in order to compete for any acclaim — even for their most essential work.
If we want a strong, healthy institution for news, we the people must fund it.
“Representation — how communities, problems, places, and histories get narrated and depicted — matters… it’s important to think about whose stories get heard and whose don’t, or whose definitions of a particular situation tend to prevail and whose don’t,” Dr. Benjamin Looker, Associate Professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University, said. Dr. Looker is well-versed in the socio-political impact of people marginalized by urban and suburbanization. He outlines representation of all stories and their truth as an opportunity for agency, and “that’s why it’s crucial for people interested in [social justice] to think seriously about imagery, representation, and storytelling.”
Twitter is a valuable platform that, if used correctly, can be a force for good; it’s exceptional at creating visibility, but we just need to monitor if that visibility is being given to accurate sources. #BlackLivesMatter is a case where Twitter has undeniably enabled dynamic and powerful social conversations, through its ability to easily and widely spread videos of police brutality and inside protests. This is an earnest use of Twitter that accurately showcases and compliments national discourse. When stories are presented like this — enhanced by Twitter, and not dictated by it — then we are capable of having important conversations without bias or contestation injecting jargon, ideologies or connotations. By heeding this ideology that our involvement inclines us to seize the ways in which our stories are told, we can make integrity the new trend.