The below is an excerpt from a Knight Foundation report which explores how Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, and Asian-American Twitter — interact with the news and offers recommendations to strengthen the relationship between journalists and these communities.
Of the communities examined in the report, Black Twitter is undoubtedly the best-known. However, as Figure 1 demonstrates, presenting “Black Twitter” as completely divorced from “Asian-American Twitter” and “Feminist Twitter” offers a false distinction. Several key values are constant across the three communities, a finding that reflects intersectional experiences among the groups — at some points, difference and objectification are predicated by ethnic, racial and gender differences, no matter which group is being discussed. Each section details how use and amplification of tweets without proper context have damaged relationships between media and diverse communities. Each section also reflects a collective desire for journalists to develop meaningful relationships within the online communities they cover, learning its norms, language, practices and values.
In particular, the Black Twitter and Feminist Twitter communities overlap with the practice of migration from blogs to social media platforms as a source for community connection and information dissemination. Additionally, Asian-American Twitter’s creation of hashtag movements designed to draw attention to issues of concern takes a page directly from the Black Twitter playbook.
What (or who) is Black Twitter?
Before Black Twitter received its name, its users were simply Black on Twitter. The label “Black Twitter,” in several forms, initiated as a mockery of early observations of the phenomenon that centered the white gaze, such as Choire Sicha’s reference to “late-night black people Twitter.” But demographically speaking, there was reason to take note of what black people were doing on Twitter. At the height of its popularity among black internet users between 2010 and 2013, nearly 25 percent of all black people in America who were online also used Twitter. In 2014, the last year for which the Pew Research Center published data on Twitter use among African-Americans, that number dropped to 22 percent.
Although the phenomenon’s inflection point differs depending on whom you ask, respondents in this research described Black Twitter’s development as a space in which black people discuss issues of concern to themselves and their communities — issues they say either are not covered by mainstream media, or are not covered with the appropriate cultural context. For these users, Black Twitter allows everyday black people to serve as gatekeepers for the news and information needs of a plurality of black American experiences — with coverage, perspective, and consideration not found elsewhere.
Findings from this research indicate that black users who consider themselves part of or familiar with Black Twitter have three key considerations for news professionals who wish to better engage with black people in America:
- They are concerned that reporters over-rely on Twitter for sourcing, and they raise ethical concerns about surveillance.
- They express a desire for news professionals to cultivate authenticity by showing up as a “real person” online.
- They want journalists to cover the plurality of black communities with diverse voices, stressing that “blackBlack people are not a monolith.”
The largest division between journalism/media professionals interviewed for this research and individuals outside the journalism industry centers on how tweets posted online should be used in reporting. There are two key concerns to observe here. First, the volume of tweets analyzed in this data set indicates that mainstream news misses rich conversation among the very individuals it is trying to reach. Naturally, journalists who observe the community dialogue with and among diverse groups might be inclined to simply begin following individuals and their conversations. However, we caution journalists to truly see Twitter as a tool for source development and not surveillance. Several participants who were asked to participate in this research about Black Twitter flatly declined, citing overuse of the online content they had created in conversations with their communities. In related research, other participants have admitted leaving the platform altogether because of journalistic intrusion on their day-to-day activities. Clearly, a lack of trust in news outlets can yield substantial consequences.
Walking the line between source development and surveillance requires a commitment to ongoing engagement — developing a sense of community — with the communities a reporter is trying to reach. While Black Twitter’s boundaries are not exclusive to black participants, it helps for media professionals to have or develop rich historical context of the incidents that spark trends. This means going beyond the five W’s and an H and considering whose narratives were left out of the original story; the power dynamics at play in current events; and the evolution of demands from the community affected by the incident being reported.
The creation of open-sourced “syllabi” serve as one example of Black Twitter’s collective work to educate members of the online public about the racial, economic, social and political underpinnings of breaking news events while reporters are still working to piece together timely elements of the story. Co-created by #blacktwitterstorians and other public contributors, #charlestonsyllabus provided context for the historical significance of white racial violence against the black church, including specifics on the religious iconography and political history of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine parishioners during Bible study in June 2015. Such resources can help journalists skip the kinds of introductory questions that irk community participants and move the conversation forward.
These collective learning and teaching experiences extend to cultural events as well. Hours after Beyonce debuted her visual album, “Lemonade,” on HBO in April 2016, black feminists tweeted their contributions of reading suggestions that would help viewers move frame-by-frame to unpack some of the imagery and references under the hashtag #lemonadesyllabus.
Aside from insightful reporting from outlets including The Guardian, which has tapped many high-profile members of Black Twitter’s online communities, and digital outlets such as Splinter (formerly known as Fusion) and Mic, these digital coursepacks remained largely unmentioned by mainstream journalists who published countless op-eds, columns and stories about both events. For example, the #charlestonsyllabus hashtag was tweeted only 32 times by journalistic Twitter accounts out of a total of 23,108 appearances in our data set.
Use of sources
Tweets from high-profile Black Twitter participants have driven many news stories. Per Twitter’s terms of service, any tweet posted from a public account may be used in any way — including as quotes or color in a story. However, this practice was debated between the journalists and nonjournalist users interviewed for this project.
The media professionals, pointing to Twitter’s terms of service, held that embedding or otherwise quoting tweets in their stories is a technologically and journalistically defensible approach to reporting via Twitter. The everyday users — in each section of this report — disagreed. Their suggestions range from contacting the user to notify them that one or more of their tweets may be used in a story, to requesting the user’s permission, to even paying the user for tweets that they consider to be “intellectual property.”
Black Twitter users noted that the reproduction of tweets in nationally distributed news reports exposes them to potential online harassment, threats or violence that they otherwise might not have faced had their tweet not been promoted on a larger platform. One user noted a discrepancy in the practice of some outlets redacting the names and handles of some Twitter users, while leaving others, particularly black women, exposed for their readers to see, find and harass.
Media professionals and everyday users found common ground in noting that at the very least, a news outlet should contact users to let them know that their tweets may be used in a story. As with Asian-American Twitter, both journalists and regular users in Black Twitter said a simple DM could open a line of communication between a reporter and a potential source. Jesse Holland, an Associated Press reporter, said he contacts users to verify tweets, which are essentially quotes. “Verification is probably the first and foremost thing,” Holland said. “Doing that means that you’re actually having a conversation, either by email or in person. It’s very rare that I would just take someone’s tweet and say, ‘This person said that.’”
Initiating conversation with Twitter users equips reporters to provide accurate context by going beyond the metrics of what is being retweeted, and why. Simply searching for high retweets and “favorites” can link false narratives to Black Twitter via popular hashtags. For instance, the far right-wing account @prisonplanet had three out of four of the highest retweet counts in our data set, amassing just over 21,000 and 18,000 retweets for two tweets using the #notmypresident hashtag, which Black Twitter used to signal disdain for President-elect Donald Trump. The account gained an additional 13,000 tweets by linking to a video that the user claimed “would be devastating for #blacklivesmatter.” Verification of the identity and intention of users like this, preferably through conversation, is key to understanding the message that is being communicated through hashtags that gain traction on Twitter. Simply relying on Twitter trends to tell the story will not suffice.
The quest for journalistic objectivity does not seem to hold up well online. Or at least not on Twitter. Respondents among the Asian-American and feminist participants in this research criticized the so-called neutral position of journalists as a default to a white, male worldview. Members of each community encouraged media professionals to show up authentically and to cultivate relationships with members of the group.
Black Twitter, for instance, is held together by varying degrees of a sense of community. Those who want to engage in meaningful interaction with Black Twitter should consider that doing so is akin to walking into a neighborhood. Rather than standing in the middle of the street and shouting to deliver information that affects readers’ lives, journalists who want to connect with Black Twitter are encouraged to be “their real selves” on Twitter.
Showing up as a multidimensional person online has several purposes where Black Twitter is concerned. First, in an era when consumers have their choice of sources for news, it presents an opportunity for reporters and editors to distinguish themselves as human beings with particular interests, a sense of humor and, to a certain degree, distinct perspectives on contemporary power dynamics that shape the news.
Second, conversational engagement with followers and others on the timeline serves as a form of source development. Regular, public interactions online promote trust between Twitter users and news professionals, making users more willing to either speak on the record themselves or refer journalists to others who may have information relevant to the stories they want to report.
Finally, making regular conversation with other Twitter users grants journalists who otherwise have little knowledge or connection to Black Twitter a relatively unobtrusive opportunity to learn more about the history, power dynamics and discourse within those communities. The language, references and other information journalists refer to as background are bandied about in everyday conversation among Black Twitter’s folks. Engaging in the everyday dialogue will keep journalists from making “you’re not from around here” mistakes like the #coatswitching debacle of 2016. Peter Howell, the Toronto Star’s movie columnist, learned this in the Great Twitter Lecture Hall when he referred to “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins’ ability to switch between street vernacular and more urbane language as “coatswitching,” rather than “code-switching,” as the practice is called. (To be fair, he is Canadian; perhaps he misheard.)
The quality of these conversations delineates the difference between surveilling, listening to, and actually engaging with Black Twitter. The return on investment of time is manifested in the reporting that black users seek and share online.
Covering the diversity of Black America
Several respondents mentioned turning to Twitter for their news rather than relying on broadcast, print or online news sites for information about black communities. For some such users, the tendency to seek news about black communities bounded by geographies, cultural commonalities and social identities began with news about their respective college campuses. For others, Black Twitter opened up a world of information about identities they did not find being reported on anywhere else. “Black women, black feminists, black gay men — they’re basically invisible communities outside of Black Twitter,” said Barbara Olivier, a student at Lafayette College.
According to a study published in 2014 by the Media Insight Project, 75 percent of black Americans said news media accurately reported on their communities only “moderately” or “slightly/not at all.” Participants said mainstream news media tend to focus only on narratives of deviance or exceptionalism among black Americans and ignores the complexities of identity and power.
In 2007, social-media-fueled citizen journalism about the Jena Six, a group of black teens convicted of beating a white teen in Jena, La., presented one of the earliest cases of the use of Twitter by black Americans to disrupt the national news agenda. “People were using Twitter to get out news around the Jena Six,” said Jesse Holland, who reports on race in America for The Associated Press. “They said, ‘Have you seen this?’ ‘Have you heard about this?’ ‘The news media isn’t talking about this. Honestly, I had not heard about [it],” Holland said. He first saw chatter about the case on Twitter. “Then I started paying attention to local news reports about it,” he said. In September 2007, one day before the youngest of the Jena Six was to be sentenced, tens of thousands of people descended on the Louisiana city (pop. 3,300) to protest the teens’ disproportionately harsh punishments. The conversation, coverage and protests were early indicators of Black Twitter’s power to shape news narratives, Holland said.
In this sense, the personal communities and subject-matter “neighborhoods” position high-profile users within Black Twitter as secondary gatekeepers of information. While some participants use their own blogs, videos, memes or threaded “tweetstorms” to present black-oriented perspectives on the day’s news, others circulate stories from mainstream media, adding commentary to characterize it for members of their communities. In some respects, Black Twitter’s participants become news workers themselves, connecting mainstream outlets with populations they have alienated through routine journalistic practices.
Recommendations for journalists
The “fix” for professional news media outlets and the diverse communities they cover is simple, and it is tweeted every day among the groups represented in this research: Do the work. Just as reporters of journalism lore spent hours talking to potential sources, media professionals who truly want to improve their outlet’s position in the digital and social media landscape will invest the time to learn more about the communities and individuals they meet online. The context behind each click, share and “favorite” tell a much richer story than can be conveyed by numbers alone. Sometimes digital traffic is an indication of a cultural failure on the news outlet’s part: Tweets may be retweeted or favorited because the writer and/or outlet are being singled out for criticism. While it is tempting to ignore online chatter, dismissing the standpoints of underrepresented people in media contributes to further division between people who make news and those who need it most.
A pre-emptive measure, and one that newsrooms everywhere should adopt, is to allow reporters and editors to spend more time pursuing meaningful digital and social media engagement that may not immediately connect with the organization’s bottom line. This interaction can include participating in the online conversation as users second-screen a televised event, such as a weekly show or awards special. Make note of the best tweets of the night and their subsequent commentary. Develop a list of people to follow who offer insightful comment about what may seem banal or even alien to you. The task is cultural immersion in an experience unlike your own.
To avoid engaging in cultural anthropology — studying community members from a distance rather than connecting with them — media professionals should give of themselves online as well. One key suggestion from the individuals queried as part of the Black Twitter research is that a journalist should show themselves to be “real people.” When I first joined Twitter as an editorial writer, my colleagues derisively mocked the platform as a place where people talk about their lunch. They missed the point. Everybody (unless they’re experiencing food insecurity) eats. Every day, if they’re fortunate. Tweeting about a favorite restaurant, with pictures of the food or the company, or a brief story about an #overheard conversation, paints a picture of one part of a person’s day. While seemingly banal, it is relatable, no-brainer information that gives readers a bit of perspective about your day. It confirms that the person behind the byline is not just a faceless name — it’s someone who enjoys a good sandwich just as much as the next person.
More substantively, social media are a solid channel for telling potential readers and listeners about the information that did not make the final edition. Reporters can use social media to provide timely answers to questions about stories after they are published, often developing potential leads for follow-ups. Another actionable suggestion is for journalists to make a weekly habit of detailing how they worked on one story. Social media offer an opportunity to be more transparent with readers. Outlets that appreciate this will find ways to push information about their decisions and processes to better connect with the groups they want to serve.
The dwindling of “objectivity” in news has contributed to the divide between media and devalued groups, including women, people of color, members of LGBTQ communities, and folks who fit all those descriptions. Objectivity is a value that was introduced and shaped by white men, often to the exclusion of others. When those others were included, their stories were told from a disconnected worldview that focused on what was easily measured and described from a majority point of view. Now, as the numbers of “minority” populations continue to grow, together we will soon occupy majority status in the country’s demographic profile.
We hope that these suggestions, and indeed the entire report, will meaningfully contribute to the ongoing conversation about how journalists ought to cover social media communities centered on traditionally marginalized groups. We hope to build on these findings to explore more currently understudied populations and how they may express themselves on Twitter. We welcome reader feedback, which we may incorporate into future publications on the subject.