Journalists have always been lazy. Anyone who pines for a Golden Age of diligent reportage, when a writer would pound the pavement in search of a good lead, or phone source after source demanding the truth, has never actually picked up an old newspaper or magazine and examined its contents. Then, as now, most writing was swill: thinly-sourced, trivial in subject matter, and slobberingly deferential to power. The All the President’s Men era of American journalism lasted exactly the duration of the film All the President’s Men. Do crack investigative reporters exist? Yes. Do they mostly end up fired, or at least in constant conflict with authority? They do. Meanwhile, most of the press remains, as ever, a content mill.
Given that much of the media consists of content-for-the-sake-of-content, the introduction of Twitter came as something of a godsend to journalists. With 500 million new Tweets rolling in every day, and nearly 310 million active monthly users, Twitter offers a sprawling bank of quotable sources. Tweets from all lands are ripe for plucking and republishing,
Hashtags, then, have become something of a goldmine for online publications. Sites like BuzzFeed have made a name for themselves in co-opting tweets from teenagers to pad out their pages with such heady articles as “Just 28 Really Real Tweets About Gymnastics” and “19 Tweets Anyone Addicted To Diet Coke Will Completely Relate To.” But it’s also increasingly common to see tweets quoted as sources in articles from CNN or The New York Times, who can produce the appearance of doing man-on-the-street reporting even as they sit at their desks trawling through Twitter. With millions of members of the public jabbering at one another at all times, Twitter is a vast ever-refreshing quote bank, an extraordinary tool for the writer in an age of 24-hour demands for fresh content.
There’s a basic ethical problem to the BuzzFeed-style practice of culling and republishing tweets. This model of article, which simply repackages memes, quips, and observations created by Twitter users, profits from people’s writing without compensating them for it (and in many cases, without properly crediting them). This constitutes a kind of low-level theft (somewhat like bullying a nerd to do your math homework, if the nerd was a preteen with 100 Twitter followers and you were a multimillion dollar publishing house), and there’s something disquieting about seeing people’s wit being resold for profit without their permission.
But Twitter-based journalism is disturbing for reasons that go far beyond questions of intellectual property and attribution. Using Twitter as a prism through which to examine and report the world creates a narrow and distorted impression of reality. And with journalists already prone to clubby insularity, Twitter provides new ways for them to confirm their preexisting worldviews, and further wall themselves off from ordinary experience. As a consequence, the world reported in the press is the world that exists on Twitter, not the world as it actually exists.
Twitter is not a normal place, though its users are ostensibly normal people. Like a Petri dish forgotten in a warm, moist cabinet, it has developed some truly curious cultures. Facilitated by its ease of use and offer of anonymity, Twitter has borne a plethora of unique subgroups with names as terrifying as “ISIS twitter” (self-explanatory), “Woke Twitter” (tweeters who focus on social justice issues, often to the point of self parody), and “Irony Twitter” (tweeters who communicate only in irony and sarcasm). Each of these groups has developed their own vernacular, traditions, and jokes, much like one would expect of high school cliques, or minor league gangs. Far from being some kind of lofty online manifestation of the “public square,” Twitter has become the digital equivalent of a stall wall in a public high school bathroom, one in which Neo-Nazis and Communists compete with one another for the most obnoxious Sharpie doodles.
Thus presenting tweets as evidence of some national or global trend (rather than as a trend on a social media platform) is several shades of problematic. Inevitably, if we take trending hashtags for actual trends, we will be dealing with a biased sample: we are looking at what is popular among people who spend time on Twitter rather than among people more broadly. Forgetting the Internet’s biases creates delusion. We may treat the artisanal cupcake blogs we follow on Tumblr as representative of every cupcake in the world, but frozen, flavor-free grocery-store cupcakes are destined to remain the norm in most of real life.
When it comes to political journalism, treating the Internet as representative of reality can heavily bias coverage. It’s because the press gets its worldview from Twitter that it was stunned by the persistence of support for Donald Trump. After all, subsequent to every new vulgar eruption from Trump’s mouth during the campaign, a torrent of outrage poured forth on Twitter, leading pundits to repeatedly declare that Trump’s campaign was finally dead (The Onion captured this kind of wishful insistence nicely with the headline: “‘This Will Be The End Of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man For Seventh Time This Year”). Yet Trump maintained support from nearly half the electorate. It was almost as if the online world was a poor representation of the world at large. One is reminded here of Pauline Kael’s frequently misconstrued remark on the 1972 election, in which she observed how closed-off her New York social life made her: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” Kael’s remark was frequently spun as comically ignorant (it was misquoted as “I don’t know how Nixon could have won; nobody I know voted for him”), but it actually showed an impressive self-awareness about the detachment of the media from the public, one that most of today’s political pundits couldn’t achieve even if they set their best unpaid interns on it.
For writers, Twitter provides a way of deepening one’s obliviousness and caressing one’s ego. Twitter allows commentators to follow only those whose opinions they wish to consume, and to receive instantaneous praise from their own followers. Thus Twitter provides a streamlined platform from which to shamelessly pimp out your writing to a self-selected group of people who are likely to read it. It’s a wonderful place to reaffirm your beliefs, and it’s so easy to do so on a platform designed to allow you to tailor the information you receive to what you want to hear, or what you know you’ll agree with.
Twitter does have its egalitarian component, however. At its best it is firmly anti-elitist, giving a platform to those who would previously have gone unheard. Some of these people (e.g. the neo-Nazis) had been pushed to the fringes for good reason, but others were excluded from mainstream discourse simply because mainstream discourse has a tendency to be snobby, corporate-driven, and exclusive. And where once one would have had to penetrate the Manhattan gala-and-book-talk scene in order to hurl abuse at a New York Times opinion columnist, now anyone with an internet connection can politely explain to Nicholas Kristof precisely why he is utterly and completely full of shit (an opportunity that the Current Affairs editorial staff takes regular advantage of). The platform thus allows for an unprecedented level of contact between the unwashed public and our patrician overlords.
But one should not overstate the case, and risk painting Twitter as some sort of classless comradely paradise. Pundits can easily filter out dissenting voices from the public, and sometimes take on the appearance of kings and queens holding court before an audience of adoring Followers. And while Twitter amplifies new voices, it does not seem to expand worldviews. For pundits, the general effect seems to be a winnowing down of their informational intake, to the point where it consists almost entirely of the words of other pundits.
To see the consequences of Twitter-centric journalism, one can examine one of the most repeated stories of the Democratic primary: the so-called rise of the “BernieBro.” In October of 2015, Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic published a brief article titled “Here Comes the Berniebro.” Meyer, a largely Twitter-dwelling journalist (having 40,100 tweets to his name, plus 41,100 “likes” of other people’s tweets), suggested that a new phenomenon had arisen in American politics. The Bernie Sanders campaign was attracting a noxious wave of supporters, whom Meyer christened the “BernieBros.” This group was “very male, […] white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, “upper middle-class”) and “aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.” He described these supporters as obstinate and aggressive in their online presence, prone to “performative” appraisals of feminism, and (perhaps worst of all) firm in their belief that Sanders “really could win.” Meyer, himself a white man, castigated these white, male Sanders voters for supporting the sins of “free college for all and a $15 minimum wage” and for falling for “Sanders’s rhetoric that America is trapped in a number of deep, unprecedented crises.”
But aside from Meyer’s bizarre contempt for Sanders voters’ idealism, the article suffered from a simple problem: there was no evidence whatsoever that some kind of “BernieBro” trend actually existed. The theory that there was something distinctly “bro-ish” about Sanders supporters was in direct conflict with the actual demographic facts (a concession Meyer even made in the article, noting that “Sanders’s support skews young, but not particularly male”). Aside from a few dozen isolated tweets, largely by anonymous and unpopular users, nobody could seem to locate the whereabouts of these storied “bros.” To be sure, one could find occasional nasty remarks about Hillary Clinton made in comment sections (although when Glenn Greenwald investigated the examples being cited, he found some of the “BernieBros” turned out to be conservatives or women). People of all stripes are assholes on the internet, though, and no effort was made to answer the real questions, which was how many of these “bros” actually existed.
In a sensible world, then, Meyer’s article should not have even been a footnote in the history of the election. It should have been laughed off as shockingly obtuse. Yet somehow, a flimsy story based on a sample of Robinson Meyer’s Facebook newsfeed ended up – miserably – setting the tone for much of the remainder of the online primary. Instead, the political media in residence on Twitter took the specter of Bernie Bros and went hog wild. Soon everyone from Jamil Smith at The New Republic to Amanda Marcotte of Salon had latched onto the fantasy of an army of evil white men who supported socialist policies as a means of furthering racism and sexism. Smith wrote that unless Sanders could somehow contain the “bros,” they would damage his political prospects. The New Yorker published a cringingly unfunny and cruel “BernieBro Code” containing the “rules” such creatures live by (e.g. “A Bernie Bro is legitimately glad that his uninformed, mainstreamer aunt is part of a generation that is going to be dead soon.”) Paul Krugman, dissatisfied with Sanders’ economic proposals, went so far as to declare that Bernie himself “is becoming a Bernie Bro.” The Sanders campaign was forced to apologize for the BernieBros, despite there being scant evidence of their actual existence.
The explosion of the fake BernieBro trend was both fascinating and appalling. The narrative ruled media Twitter for months, and despite demographic data continually debunking it, pundits clung to it like a safety blanket. It became a convenient way to dismiss all criticisms of Hillary Clinton that didn’t come from someone with a byline in a major publication or a degree from an Ivy League school. In fact, Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast reported in June that she was skeptical of the BernieBros idea, for the simple reason that the Clinton campaign had tried to pitch her a story about the phenomenon. The BernieBros line proved convenient for the Clinton camp, as it shifted press coverage to questions like “How will Sanders stop the BernieBros?” and away from substantive policy.
The BernieBros story showed how news can be manufactured in an age of Twitter punditry: a writer grabs a few stray tweets and produces an article declaring them a nationwide event. Other writers, sharing both the first writer’s political persuasion and constant need to emit content, issue commentaries on the phenomenon, citing the first writer’s article as their source. Pundits quote pundits who quote tweets. Then there are more tweets, then additional punditry. At no point is the story checked against the real world: it is solely a dialogue between The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Twitter.
Thus there are real-world political consequences to this type of shoddy reporting; we at least know that it can filter into a presidential primary. There’s a feedback loop between the media and political elite, and Twitter provides a convenient means of fabricating stories to further particular interests. One can create the news entirely to fit one’s agenda and worldview, since there are always Twitter subcommunities where a certain thing is true, even if it is nonexistent in the wider world.
It can be harder to ascertain motive when all of this back-and-forth occurs online. With conventional network political coverage, sycophancy is easily detected. One could simply turn on Meet The Press, and witness Chuck Todd’s eyeballs morph gruesomely into hearts whenever he was seated across from John McCain or Chuck Schumer. On Twitter, with its veneer of equality, it can be difficult to determine who is doing what for which reasons.
Multiple kinds of journalistic dysfunction are enabled by Twitter. One can draw a distinction between the purely profit-driven lazy journalism of BuzzFeed and the brown-nosing and status-driven journalism of New York magazine or The New Republic. The former is simply unfortunate, in that it gradually turns everyone stupid. The latter, however, is actively pernicious. Through the magic of Twitter, political journalists form incestuous cliques that reaffirm their prejudices, then their own publications treat those cliques as the boundaries of the social world. Twitter helps make politicians our friends, and makes journalists friends with politicians. We have developed an online political culture that is a-okay with calling Dianne Feinstein their “queen” or 83-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg their “mom.” That is not something a healthy society does.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much, though. Most of the world happily gets along without ever thinking about what The Atlantic has to say about anything. In writing about Twitter punditry, one runs the risk of reinforcing the very problem one is diagnosing, and attributing an outsized real-world significance to inconsequential commentators. But it remains true that political media sets agendas, and if a presidential candidate is forced to spend time responding to empty rubbish spread by pundits, this is time that cannot be spent campaigning. While the inhabitants of Twitter may constitute a comparatively small fraction of the American public, they make a comparatively large fraction of the country’s noise. To the extent that it escapes the Internet and poisons us all, their obsession with the insignificant could very well be significant.
Illustration by Lewis Rossignol.