Our Feckless Fealty to Twitter
Journalists, including those who were suspended from the platform, accept the reality of the social media platform’s still pervasive influence, despite its many flaws.
I took a day off this past work week from my reporting duties to wear my hat as the JURIST journalist-in-residence on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
JURIST is an award-winning online legal news service powered by a global team of over 100 law student reporters, editors, commentators, correspondents and content developers from 50 law schools in 24 countries across six continents. They do amazing work, on par with many professional media outlets, and I urge you to check out their reporting.
I am the only non-lawyer or non-Ph.D. that has been asked to be the JURIST journalist-in-residence. What I lack in credentials I try to make up by passing on lessons learned in the school of hard knocks, including my experiences over the past 15 years on social media.
I told the JURIST team that my news organization, the Voice of America, does not permit me to opine and any attempt at humor online would likely be too subtle for my intended overseas audiences, composed of non-native speakers of English, thus I try to stick to the facts while providing a bit of color and context.
Despite the thousands of very serious news tweets over the years, it has usually been the bit off-kilter moments generating the most engagement, somewhat to my bemusement. It helped demonstrate Twitter’s power to make mountains out of molehills.
One time, during the Trump administration, there was a sinkhole on the White House North Lawn, outside the press entrance. It enlarged after a period of intense rain in May of 2018. I decided to tweet a couple of photos of it. Much to my astonishment, it quickly went viral. Newspapers, including The New York Times, and broadcasters, such as the BBC, picked it up. Within hours, dozens of other reporters spilled out of the press room to tweet pictures of it. They had also walked by the hole for days, but I was the first to find it ‘tweetworthy’ – if not particularly newsworthy.
As the sinkhole became a meme, the National Park Service, which is tasked with tending to the grounds of the White House, found it prudent to place a board over the sinkhole until the depression could be filled. That, of course, set off a new round of tweets by me and others about an actual White House cover-up.
Post-sinkhole I became more astute and what I previously considered mundane with scant news value was now a potentially popular tweet. One chilly day in January of 2019, it was video of Marine One with the president on board coming in for a winter landing and snow-blowing us. Some speculated that the president had ordered the pilot to pelt us, but that was not true.
Also in January of 2019, I noticed a large bucket (something resembling an industrial-sized plastic trash receptacle) on display for several days in the window of the White House family kitchen. I tweeted several photos of that. Some conspiracy theorists became excited, seeing the big bin as akin to a flowerpot in the window that spies use to signal each other. Again, the placement was innocuous and occurred amid a government shutdown, so someone had likely forgotten it was there during a time the White House was understaffed. It goes to show when there is no news, White House reporters are compelled to find even the most innocuous irregularity and try to turn it into news.
I never intend tweets to give a complete or nuanced picture of events. As journalism is the first draft of history, tweets are the first draft of journalism. I had honed my technique over the years as I became acquainted with the platform and my following grew, while realizing the speed and power of social media.
Ever since the beginning of my career in broadcast journalism, starting in local radio in Las Vegas, mentors instilled in me the critical need not only for accuracy but the value of immediacy. Despite my embrace of emergency communication technology, including being an early adopter of bulletin board systems, UseNet and Compuserve, I was initially wary of commercialized social media platforms. Facebook in the mid-2000’s appeared to be a dubious time-suck, with a near cult-like devotion to such games as Farmville. I did not feel compelled to join the fun.
It wasn’t until one evening late in November of 2008 when it became clear something terrible was happening at several locations in Mumbai (Bombay), India, that I became a lurker on Twitter. I was based in New Delhi as VOA’s South Asia bureau chief. Initial reports on Indian cable television news channels were sensational and unreliable, including speculation about warring rival gangs of Nigerians (however implausible that was in India). The most accurate and fastest information came from terrified witnesses inside several five-star hotels who used their Blackberries (the smartphone of its day) to relay to the world there had been explosions and gunfire. The terror attack would continue for four days and shortly after it was over – with 175 people dead – I was convinced of the utility of Twitter
Initially I had no intention of being an active tweeter. If I had I would have selected a different handle for my Twitter account – which is @W7VOA — my ham radio callsign.
I initially viewed Twitter as a digital successor to the radio police scanner – a device to monitor emergency responses in real time but information that would need to be independently verified before broadcasting. It would be a while before I realized that Twitter was its own media eco-system.
Two-and-a-half years later when I was one of the first international journalists in Fukushima as reactors melted down at a commercial nuclear power plant after the facility was crippled by a tsunami triggered by the largest earthquake to strike Japan in recorded history, Twitter helped make me a prominent international reporter. I was unaware that the information I posted to Twitter on radiation readings recorded daily by local governments was some of the quickest and most accurate real-time data to the rest of the world. I was more focused on recording TV reports and web stories from the affected communities and the tweets were information I posted when I had spare moments, except when powerful aftershocks and fresh tsunami warnings were issued.
Twitter would come to play a larger role in my professional life after I got to the White House. The credit or the blame, depending on one’s political perspective, goes to Donald Trump. The wealthy host of the ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ program issued his first @realDonaldTrump tweet on May 4, 2009, and it was innocuous enough: "Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!" Less than eight years later he would take over the @POTUS account and the Oval Office from Barack Obama, but arguably his most powerful instrument of power would be his personal Twitter account.
Until Twitter threw him off the platform on January 8th, 2021, two days after the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol, Trump issued 26,237 tweets and retweets as president on his personal account – an average of 18 per day – with upwards of 80 million followers and retweets of his tweets reaching the rate of 1,000 per minute. A statistic most enlightening about Trump’s personal Twitter account is that, as president, he never followed more than 48 accounts but if he wanted ample feedback all he needed to do was glance at his mentions column. All that time on Twitter did not boost Trump’s public support. He entered the presidency with a favorability rating of 45 percent, according to Gallup, and left office (after losing his bid for a second term) twice impeached with a job approval rating of 34 percent, the lowest of his four-year presidency.
After billionaire Elon Musk purchased Twitter, Trump’s permanent suspension was rescinded in 2022, shortly after the former president formally declared he would try to win back his old job during the 2024 election. Twitter’s new owner, however, while welcoming back Trump and others on the political right who had been banished, began removing some mainstream journalists from the platform.
Trump’s suspension stemmed from rhetoric fomenting an insurrection and took place under the previous Twitter ownership. My “permanent suspension” resulted from tweeting about other journalists suspended from Twitter for tweeting about a banned account that tweeted flight information about new Twitter owner’s Elon Musk’s private jet. I know that sounds ridiculous but that’s what happened.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin was among the prominent people tweeting their concern about the takedown of my account and those of the other journalists.
Musk subsequently tweeted the journalists’ account were “restored.” That was misleading as I told Jim Acosta on CNN. In my case I would not be able to tweet to my 115,000 followers, view my own timeline or see the accounts I follow unless I removed three tweets mentioning ElonJet, whose account Musk accused of posting “assassination coordinates.”
For four years as a White House correspondent, traveling with Trump dozens of times, I tweeted in real-time the location of Air Force One and the president’s whereabouts. This was considered public information, released by the White House to all its accredited journalists. No one at Twitter or anywhere else ever accused us of tweeting assassination coordinates.
I appealed and found myself sentenced indefinitely to this deeper level of Twitter purgatory. The only recourse I had to regain control of my account, according to Twitter, was to withdraw my appeal, which I eventually did after the social media platform indicated dormant accounts might be deleted. That would have allowed someone else to sign up to take my Twitter handle, buy a blue tick and thus impersonate me. It appears all of the other journalists caught in the ElonJet drama have made similar decisions, withdrawing their appeals and returning to a social media platform that is just too intertwined with our profession to divorce. No matter how ridiculous or hypocritical the capriciousness of the new Twitter management we could either comply or lose access to our accounts, which included not be able to send or receive direct messages. My DM list is a virtual address book with instant access to a number of public officials, other VIPs and sources that are an integral component of my newsgathering. I don’t know their e-mail addresses or phone numbers but I can message them anytime, as long as both of us remain on Twitter.
After Musk purchased Twitter, as mentioned, I set up accounts on other emerging social media platforms. I saw these new accounts as insurance policies – alternatives but not replacements for Twitter should my favorite site’s servers begin to melt down due to the layoffs of techs and other personnel. I did not plan to abandon Twitter, where up to 100 times daily I reposted – without offering opinion -- my news stories, on-the-site observations of breaking news and retweets of stories from other mainstream journalists and news organizations.
Some people encouraged me to file a lawsuit after I was placed in Twitter purgatory and I did consult with some First Amendment attorneys and organizations. The bottom line was no sane lawyer was willing to take such a case pro bono and have their life consumed as a plaintiff’s counsel versus a legion of lawyers representing one of the world’s richest men.
Alas, I did not sue Elon Musk.
My insurance policies – accounts on Mastodon, post.news and Spoutible – however were already providing benefits. At the moment I was banished from Twitter, I had about 3,000 followers on Mastodon. That increased more than ten-fold within a week. On post.news, a simpler and more user-friendly site, I also quickly gained thousands of followers. While the totals paled in comparison to my Twitter followers, I noticed something unexpected and remarkable – the engagement (comments, like and re-posts) far exceeded what I had recently experienced on Twitter. I was not certain why, but it may have been that many Twitter accounts had been abandoned, were bots or the users are just very passive observers.
Some who fled what they consider a toxic environment on Twitter have been exploring other platforms and prefer no longer to be exposed to politics, disaster and other mayhem (they told me so, especially on Mastodon). But the majority, 95%, (according to an unscientific online poll I conducted on Mastodon) encouraged me to post even more news than I did on Twitter.
The news items that initially generated the highest level of engagement on these other sites: The turmoil at Twitter.
One result of the firings at Twitter and the loosening of rules against hate speech and other toxic content is an increase of personal attacks or even death threats. Researchers have documented the surge, including antisemitic tweets.
Even before Musk took over, I was subject to intense bursts of bots and trolls responding to my tweet. For some inexplicable reason, I only received death threats during my time as a White House correspondent, on Instagram! I took care of that by making my Instagram account private.
The most egregious responses, which crossed the line, I do report to the platforms or server administrators, even if that is ultimately futile. I filed reports to relevant authorities about a couple of explicit death threats.
As I told the JURIST journalists during my talk on Thursday (March 23rd), if I receive a sincere response on social media or someone is asking for clarification or even correcting some information I will respond, especially if someone has posted their real name. I have even made some new friends this way. But I certainly do not feel compelled to respond to every troll, bot or anonymous poster. Some of these people are just trying to get a rise out of you. Some may be part of concerted disinformation campaigns backed by state actors.
I am a white guy and I know these sort of online attacks are far, far worse and more frequent for women, the transgender community and persons of color.
One Pitt Law student asked in our Q&A session, what actions social media platforms should take to moderate hate speech. I replied I do not know how it would be practical to fairly evaluate millions of messages per minute, but certainly relying on algorithms is not the answer. And don’t expect timely adjudication from Twitter for tweets that are reported for violating the rules (which seem to be arbitrary anyway). After Musk’s takeover there’s hardly anyone home there.
No one has to stick around and suffer the abuse. There are many alternatives now, especially for those who are on the political left and right. The risk of the atomization of social media, however, is the town square we have built on Twitter gets replaced by a myriad of echo chambers, most of them a cacophony.