It’s time for lazy journalists and politicians to look beyond a quick Twitter search when trying to gauge public opinion.
“Once again, the internet has spoken” declared Digital Spy this week, a statement that suggests a declaration of opinion somewhere up there with a national election or a Brexit referendum. The internet is a big place, of course, so to get it to speak with one voice on anything is quite the achievement. That the subject in hand was the uncertain sexuality of a fictional character in a comic book movie, you might well raise your eyebrows at this claim, and you’d be right to, as the accompanying article presents one tweet and two replies as evidence. Three people make up the whole of the internet? Who knew?
Even if we leave aside the ludicrous, click hungry desperation of vacuous sites like Digital Spy, where every trivial moment can be stretched out into a new post that Apple News will dutifully place front and centre in their headlines, then stories like this are indicative of a greater problem in news reporting today. And that problem is Twitter.
Twitter, as Trump, Johnson and Brexit prove, is not an accurate representation of society. Most people are not on the platform, and it doesn’t even work as a representative sample – Twitter is massively skewed towards the Left – not the moderate Left either, but the extremist wing who feed off their echo chambers and crank up their outrage levels to eleven at the mere suggestion of an alternative opinion. Disagree in any way and you’ll be called a Nazi, a fascist, and God knows what else. The sort of people who suggest drawing swastikas on Brexit 50p coins are not, I would suggest, reasonable or normal people. I’m aware that the Right has similar echo chambers and similar obsessives, but on Twitter at least, they are massively outnumbered by the Left. Unfortunately for the firebrands of social media, this outnumbering does not seem to extend into the real world, where it ultimately matters.
Using Twitter to gauge public opinion is, therefore, a fool’s errand, and yet it is exactly what the media do. In part, it’s down to laziness – whereas a journalist might have once had to leave the office and talk to actual people, or at least make a phone call or two, now they can type a keyword into Twitter, see what comes up and cherry-pick a few tweets that agree with your own take on a story, as well as one alternative opinion (this both shows ‘balance’ while subtlely suggesting that this is a minority and dismissable opinion). As modern journalism slides more and more into undisguised activism – where journalists are less interested in objective truth as a subjective belief system – so twitter becomes vital in showing that your outrage or support is the outrage or support of the masses – at least the decent folk of Twitter.
That it might actually be very strange to get so worked up about a new coin, the sexual preferences of a comic book character or the furiously contrived virtue signalling of a BBC children’s show is an idea lost on these journalists, who instead want to show that they are on the right side of history (unless it is old history, in which case it needs rewriting immediately), and think that the best – and easiest – way to do that is to repost a few selected tweets, or better yet, post their own ill-considered tweet and then sit back with a self-satisfied look on their faces as they await the avalanche of replies and retweets confirming that they are right.
Sometimes, this seems to go wrong – Washington Post hack Felicia Somnez’s post about Kobe Bryant’s twenty-year old rape accusation (for which he was acquitted but will forever be considered guilty of by her ilk) within hours of his death did not go down well and saw her briefly suspended from her job. But her colleagues and twitter supporters rallied around, she was reinstated and her Social Justice points have probably doubled as a result. So her post was perhaps more a calculated gamble than an ill-considered bit of mouthing off. Her career won’t be harmed, because the tweet mobs are on her side.
None of this would really matter if we didn’t have politicians, public bodies and other organisations who have been panicked into also thinking that Twitter somehow speaks for the masses, and who will have knee-jerk reactions to what they mistakenly believe the public mood to be. This can result in laws that affect us all, or small moments of individual misery when people find themselves unemployed (and perhaps unemployable), demonised and found guilty of crimes that they often haven’t even committed, thanks to the social media kangaroo court where accusation equals guilt, and the mainstream presses eagerness to reprint those accusations as news stories, often assuming guilt without a scrap of evidence beyond the massed outrage of Twitter – a massed outrage that frequently includes their own journalists piling on with vitriol and hate. Look at those poor Covington kids, demonised across the internet as racists, with calls for violence against them – from mainstream journalists, no less. They were lucky that video evidence emerged to show that the supposed eye-witness reports were actually lies, though some of their vocal accusers have still not backed down, so keen were they to see racism and white privilege at work. Others haven’t been so lucky, and have been torn apart, sometimes over a single tweet from years ago that probably didn’t even accurately reflect their beliefs at the time it was posted, by hate-driven, faux-outraged people who genuinely believe themselves to be the good guys as they root through a decade of tweets in search of the one that can be used to ruin someone’s life.
There’s a lot to say in favour of Twitter – I’m not trying to demonise the platform, though it might be a little more even-handed when it comes to banning people. But let’s not pretend that Twitter is the voice of anything beyond a small and wildly unrepresentative minority of the world. What is said on Twitter should stay on Twitter, and not be allowed to interfere in the rights and freedoms of others.