Over the past few years, Twitter’s status as a platform for public debate is a dog-whistle platitude that has become the gilded shield of First-Amendment-waving journalists everywhere, like our very own #NotAllMen hashtag, to justify the mishandling – and, in some cases, even endangerment – of our sources for digital stories (and, yes, tweets should be considered sources).
Theoretically, anyone can stumble upon your unprotected tweet; therefore, we can embed your tweet in our news story without informing you or asking your permission. But just because journalists can exercise that power, does that mean we ought to?
It’s easy for a journalist in the internet era to blur the line between theory and ethical practices, when every day seems to unearth a new, even more annoying approach to online publishing and social media. From outrage culture to clickbait culture to the snark/smarm debate, the web is full of finger-wagging, but most of it has been a question of attitude, tone-policing at worst.
The real world and the Twitter disconnect
At a certain point, though, the debate moves beyond the ideological and starts affecting individuals’ lives. It’s easy to forget why this matters, until all our pontification meets grave consequences. And nowhere on the internet is this disconnect better illustrated – or more misunderstood – than on Twitter.
Take the obvious example of Aziah “Zola” King, a sex worker whose shocking Twitter tale gripped tweeters for precisely one day.
When the media picked up on it, they embedded screenshots of her 150+ tweets, which included photos of Jessica, another sex worker, posted without her permission, beneath breathless headlines like “Stop What You’re Doing and Read This Twitter Story Right Now” and “Everyone is Having a Meltdown Over This Woman’s Story About a Trip To Florida.” King enjoyed the exposure, especially when celebrities took notice; Jessica, however, did not. Now a married mother of two, she’s long since left sex work, and denied King’s account of the weekend.
Even after King deleted the tweets, people had already taken on a Serial-level interest in finding out “the truth” in her tale (and screenshots are forever).
There have been plenty of similar incidents, from the handling of Christine “@steenfox” Fox and other survivors in a story about a sexual assault hashtag, to the publishing of minors’ racist tweets, and the infamous Justine Sacco debacle.
Each time, online media takes for granted that these users willingly opened themselves to publicity because, after all, Twitter is technically public. (It’s not just Twitter either: recently a streamer on live gaming platform Twitch made some extremely personal confessions about his struggles with drug addiction to his audience of regular viewers, asking them (and the press) not to write about it — but they did anyway.)
Jeb Lund did a thorough job here last year of explaining why embedding is an intellectual property issue (not to mention not journalism) long before the Zola story went down, so to build on his case: by using the tweets of private citizens, not only do we forget to treat these people with the same care we would an in-person source, but we also reveal just how little we think about the difference between ourselves as the (extremely powerful) mainstream media and Twitter as a (“public”) platform.
‘Everyone on Twitter is talking about it’ is not the same as ‘everyone is talking about it’
When I say “everyone is talking about Zola”, who is “everyone”? And what’s at stake when journalists get the answer wrong, or disregard the question altogether? Getting to that truth requires taking a more basic step that most of us forget even exists, but is nevertheless crucial in dealing with this issue: who uses Twitter? We like to think we understand it, but we rarely think of its reach relative to Facebook and more traditional platforms. In order to finally codify more responsible practices regarding the internet and our increasingly public lives – and yes, it’s only going to get more public from here – we first need to reconfigure our understanding of the parameters, and of the platforms we’re working with.
When #Gamergate trends on Twitter, is that synonymous with “everyone is talking about Gamergate”? A quick, highly unscientific poll of your less internet-invested high school friends will reveal that, in fact, there is still a huge number of people who have still never even heard of the digital harassment campaign, even when it dominated digital news outlets and actively threatened women’s lives.
The demographic that only uses the internet for Facebook and to check a handful of sites such as Buzzfeed and Yahoo! News on a daily basis would never think to seek out a random non-public female gamer – let alone create a new Twitter account to harass her – but if they saw her tweets embedded on another site, that might inspire them to join in the fun. (Reddit, of course, is another matter entirely.)
Take this statistic as further illumination: according to a Pew Research Center study of social media demographics, more American adults use LinkedIn than use Twitter. It’s not a drastic margin by any means, but it’s significant enough to demonstrate the limited audience Twitter reaches in and of itself, before the media steps in. Their data suggests the top three news websites’ monthly unique visitors (330.6 million) is equivalent to the active monthly global usership of Twitter (320 million). What’s more, according to Twitter’s own estimate, all news posts across the internet that contain embedded tweets receive a rough total of one billion unique visitors per month.
When a journalist embeds a tweet, that exposes someone to a huge and often unintended audience
So it’s an understatement to say that when journalists embed the tweets of a private citizen without interacting with her or him first, we unceremoniously dump a whole lot of extra eyes on top of a relatively limited audience, thus exponentially increasing the visibility and potential harassment of that person.
This actively contradicts the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which along with the obvious truth/independence/transparency clauses, recommends that reporters “minimise harm”, to “treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect”.
Exploiting a source constitutes harm. When Twitter users such as Fox get angry about their tweets being embedded in a major news story (not to mention non-users such as Zola’s outed former colleague Jessica), they are not angry that the journalist violated the rules of Twitter. They’re upset because the journalist in question has abused their position of power by considering neither the reach/context of that platform, nor the consequences their actions could have on those they “quote” (without actually doing the work of interviewing).
When we embed tweets and claim it’s our right to do so, we consider those users to be less than actual journalistic sources, which allows us to bypass the careful steps we would ordinarily take with our subjects to ensure we were giving them a fair shake. To simply¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and say Twitter is public is to fail at our job. It’s unacceptable, and we have to do better — if not for the public’s sake, then for our own survival.
This article was written by Devon Maloney, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 12th January 2016 12.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010