THIS is not one of those articles that says "isn't Twitter just somewhere to people talk about their breakfasts?" That hack observation is the 21st-century equivalent of Eighties comics blathering on about airline food or fat men in the Seventies moaning about their monstrous mother-in-laws.
I like Twitter. I just hate the weight it's given by increasing lazy journalists and politicians. Twitter is not the world, it's a very vocal, self-selecting slice of it, the most eclectic party ever with some of the worst gatecrashers. The trouble is, the media has taken to reporting Twitter’s response to news as if it is representative and pollsters are now jumping on that bandwagon.
Newspapers, magazines and websites fill space with cheap "Twitter users react to…" stories that simply gather up tweets on a particular issue. Don’t believe me? Here’s some examples from the past three days: 1) "Twitter Reacts To Chi Magazine Publishing More Kate Middleton Topless Pics" 2) "Cole, Ferdinand, Rooney & more: Twitter reacts to Man City's defeat" 3) "The Best of #muslimrage: Twitter Reactions to Newsweek Cover".
There is seemingly no story that cannot be boiled down to a grab-bag of tweets from celebrities and ordinary Twitter users. Just as vox pops rely on people with enough time on their hands to stop and blather to a passing news crew – and are easily edited to fit the editorial line – “Twitter reacts…” stories simply provide a tiny, skewed snapshot on an issue with the added bonus that the journalists behind them don’t even have to formulate questions. That tendency is taken to its logical end by celebrity hacks that fill whole pages with stories perched on stars’ tweets.
The growing reliance on social media, particularly Twitter, is damaging to journalism. While social networks can quickly flag up potential sources and highlight stories faster, they also have a tendency to get things wrong and obscure just who is behind a message. During events like last year’s riots, Twitter rapidly fills with false reports and rumours, some of which make their way into news reports.
I witnessed a more minor example of how information on Twitter can be taken as fact without even the most rudimentary checks. During the Olympic closing ceremony, I jokingly tweeted: “NBC Commentator: “That is not actually Batman but a British folk hero known as Del Boy. Sort of like Robin Hood…” #closingceremony”.
Soon, that message was being retweeted as fact and stolen by others, presented as something that had actually occurred. It was shared by a 5 News reporter, several BBC reporters, a national newspaper’s political editor and even an ITV sports reporter. In doing that, those journalists gave a sliver of satire the air of truth. The message is still being retweeted now, weeks after the event.
While the spread of my silly Olympics joke is amusing, the idea that think tanks are now turning to Twitter as a valuable barometer of public opinion is more unsettling. Demos announced yesterday that it has formed a new unit, The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media. While the initiative has an impressive team behind it and the tools to analyse the huge amount of data Twitter produces, it fits into the pattern of over-valuing opinions expressed on social networks.
People often play characters online and profess to hold more exaggerated view points than they might be comfortable acting upon in the physical world. It’s also arguable that answers from Twitter and Facebook users will be subject to social desirability bias, the tendency to answer questions in a way that will be viewed favourably by their friends and followers.
Twitter is an enjoyable communication channel and one whose value lies in its restrictions. But when journalism and academia turn to it for answers, they’re almost always asking the wrong questions. Consider it a source and a start by all means, but those social media refuseniks have pretty valuable things to say if you make the effort to hear them. Feel free to tweet me how much you disagree.
Mic Wright in on Twitter at @brokenbottleboy.