Farhad Manjoo - NYT Columnists
Friends, reporters, fam: It’s time we journalists all considered disengaging from the daily rhythms of Twitter, the world’s most damaging social network.
You don’t have to quit totally — that’s impossible in today’s news business. Instead, post less, lurk more.
“Never Tweet” is an ironic meme on Twitter, a thing people in media say to acknowledge how futile it is to consider ever leaving this place where all news happens first. I want to suggest another meaning: “Never Tweet” should be an aspiration, a necessary step toward improving the relationship between the media and the digital world.
Of course, I’ve climbed onto this very high horse because we just witnessed a terrible week on the internet. Over the weekend, thanks largely to amplification on Twitter, MAGA-hatted high-school kids from Kentucky — and whether they did or did not harass a Native American elder during a march in Washington — eclipsed all other news. At first, the Twitter mob went after the kids from Covington Catholic High School. Then, as more details of the incident emerged, a mob went after the people who’d gone after the kids. No one won; in the end the whole thing was little more than a divisive, partisan mess.
So it was just another weekend on Twitter. But in its zigs and zags, the Covington story made one thing clear: Twitter is ruining American journalism.
The Covington saga illustrates how every day the media’s favorite social network tugs journalists deeper into the rip currents of tribal melodrama, short-circuiting our better instincts in favor of mob- and bot-driven groupthink. In the process, it helps bolster the most damaging stereotypes of our profession. Instead of curious, intellectually honest chroniclers of human affairs, Twitter regularly turns many in the news — myself included — into knee-jerk outrage-bots reflexively set off by this or that hash-tagged cause, misspelled presidential missive or targeted-influence campaign.
But Twitter isn’t just ruining the media’s image. It’s also skewing our journalism. Everything about Twitter’s interface encourages a mindset antithetical to journalistic inquiry: It prizes image over substance and cheap dunks over reasoned debate, all the while severely abridging the temporal scope of the press.
In the initial rush of outrage about the Covington kids, before many details were in, many in the media — many of whom have since confessed they should have waited a little longer — got caught up in the fracas. They said things they shouldn’t have. They shut down dissent, chilling more measured thinking, because the tide of Twitter umbrage narrows one’s gaze and discourages empathy. There’s never any time to wait to get out your take: fear of missing out, which is Twitter’s primary sensibility, requires that everyone offer an opinion before much is known — because by the time more is known, Twitter will already have moved on to something else.
I don’t care to litigate the events concerning the Covington kids. I have read and watched at least a half-dozen accounts, and in the Rashomon haze of smartphone-captured clips I am still not sure what exactly happened. The story seems complicated enough to merit careful analysis, which was unsurprisingly nowhere in sight the few times I checked Twitter this weekend.
I will confess that when I first saw the video of a smirking teenager staring down a drumming elder, I, too, was stirred to outrage. My politics lean against the kids’, and something about their smugness and certainty — they seemed to be doing tomahawk chops and were wearing hats supporting a racist president — confirmed all my priors about the ugliness of our Trumpian times.
In the past, I would have been right there with others in the media who couldn’t contain their outrage. I would have tweeted my dumb take — as I did with Justine Sacco, as I did when I inadvertently passed on police-scanner misinformation after the Boston Marathon bombing, as I’ve done too many embarrassing times to recount — and I would have felt very righteous as the likes rolled in.
The only reason I didn’t beclown myself this time is that I’ve significantly cut back how much time I spend on Twitter, and — other than to self-servingly promote my articles and engage with my readers — I almost never tweet about the news anymore.
I began pulling back last year — not because I’m morally superior to other journalists, but because I worried I was weaker.
I’ve been a Twitter addict since Twitter was founded. For years, I tweeted every ingenious and idiotic thought that came into my head, whenever, wherever; I tweeted from my wedding and during my kids’ births, and there was little more pleasing in life than hanging out on Twitter, poring over hot news as it broke.
But Twitter is not that carefree clubhouse for journalism anymore. Instead it is the epicenter of a nonstop information war, an almost comically undermanaged gladiatorial arena where activists and disinformation artists and politicians and marketers gather to target and influence the wider media world.
For a journalist, flying above that fray requires intense intestinal fortitude. Twitter, I realized, was sapping all my time and energy, and sooner or later, I knew I would screw up royally. Deep down, I suspect many others worry about the same.
They are right to. Twitter will ruin us, and we should stop.
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