By Harrison Newsham
Twitter has become one of our most accessible sources of news in the modern world. The time between events happening and then being communicated to the general public has radically decreased over the past few years. Twitter has been at the forefront of this journalistic revolution, arguably more so than other social media, since it is the platform used by high profile figures to make reactionary statements, in a less intimate zone like Facebook.
This appears to be a change that should enhance society – the populace becoming more quickly aware of the world beyond their immediate environment is surely a move in a positive direction.
Firstly, we need to challenge the notion that faster means better. Some argue that the sooner the public is made aware of an event, the sooner the change in the public consciousness can occur – which in turn can mean sooner measurable action.
Take, for example, the response to the 2017 Manchester bombing. The power of social media generated an immediate public reaction that roused flocks of compassionate individuals to donate money to those who were suffering. Social media spawned love amid tragedy, helping us come to terms with the horrific events.
However, when the solution to a problem is not clear cut, Twitter causes more problems than it solves, creating an environment “where it is more important to be right, than to be effective”, to quote Stephen Fry.
Because of the rapidity of our media, people from across the political spectrum take sides before numbers have been crunched, data has been fully analysed, and incidents investigated. This can result in frenzied exchanges and angry tirades exploding across the internet.
One example of this is the recent condemnation of Kanye West’s comments at his first rally, by Twitter users who did not fully know of the severity of West’s mental health problems. People took sides before recognising how West’s bipolar disorder might have impacted the delivery of his speech.
On a larger scale, this instantaneous pre-judging pulls populations apart in times where unity, or at least the extension of mutual respect and tolerance, would be a better route to follow. This has occurred when individuals claim online that the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-white, without understanding the basic privileges white people often have that black people often lack.
Journalists undoubtedly contribute to this melee of discourse.
Some journalists have even started to use Twitter as their primary mode of communication. They make statements in order to appease their audience, rather than to present an accurate representation of reality and hold the powers that be to account.
Recently, the former New York Times columnist, Bari Weiss, stepped down from her role in reaction to this phenomenon, and issued a damning statement on the situation that pushed her to quit.
In her article, she claims that “Twitter has become its [The New York Time’s] ultimate editor”, since journalists are often pressured by the politics of Twitter to immediately adopt a left-wing standpoint on issues for fear or exclusion. This stifles debate. Those who resist have been labelled as “a Nazi and a racist”. Weiss, who underwent this, is in fact a moderate centrist.
If liberal progressives were to acknowledge this issue, then they could understand the part they play in weaving together the right’s ‘leftist mob’ narrative, shifting political discourse on social media further left. They could then change their strategy to deconstruct this story that hinders them so.
Perhaps the Twitter revolution is a reaction to the right-wing domination of the print press and its affiliations. The right is in no way guiltless of the same crimes. However, balancing out the political agenda across media in this way is not useful since it sacrifices the cornerstone of journalism – nuance.
Instead, we need nuance within individual newspapers and within individual posts on social media. This is where character (length) limits are a problem.
It is not useful for an information-hungry world to consume polarised media, because it exacerbates distrust and tribalism.
When we engage with a contested issue, especially on social media, we should not enter seeking to win an argument – existing or perceived. We should attempt instead to uphold the truth, by taking the time to fully consider an issue before posting about it on social media. I admit I am guilty of giving into the temptation to react immediately to an event on social media.
But while social media is a tool with which to express opinion, we must also respect opposing opinions, and be prepared to admit when we are wrong. These principles are vital for the functioning of democracy.
Photograph: Stock Catalog via Flickr