Twitter tattle and the trouble with twitchforks
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Tags: Article, Blogging, comment, Comment is free, Digital media, Internet, Kate Bevan, Media, Social media, Technology, Twitter, World news
Did you join in the #twitterblackout on Saturday? It was proposed in response to the publication last week of Twitter’s policy on removing content blocked by governments. The immediate reaction on Twitter was outrage at what was considered to be “censorship“, which led to a “strike”, with fellow users pledging to abstain from tweeting on Saturday. The speed at which the discontent spread was, as ever, quite impressive. However, as is increasingly the case with Twitter, a quick moment to pause and actually do one’s own reading around the issue revealed quite a different picture. In fact, Twitter’s posted policy is – as has been pointed out by a number of people – a shining example of how to respond both responsibly and transparently to takedown requests by a government.
Similarly, on Sunday night news rapidly spread on social networks that RBS boss Stephen Hester had waived his near-£1m bonus in the face of political pressure. However, again, a bit of reading around the subject reveals that the case is more complicated and nuanced than can possibly be covered in a 140-character tweet. The BBC’s Robert Peston explained the shades of grey on his blog in a post that would eat up more than a few tweets.
And that’s the problem: social networking militates against thinking for yourself. As the Twitterati jumps on the day’s bandwagon, we are increasingly seeing the unedifying spectacle of what’s been dubbed “twitchfork mobs” – and it can get ugly. Social media is a wonderful tool for networking and communication, but the flip side is that it encourages laziness of thinking. The need to verify information also seems to have been forgotten. It’s not just Twitter: Facebook has recently been awash with pictures that get posted and reposted, regardless of their provenance or veracity.
The most recent example popping up in my feed is a picture of a Waitrose store window, where the apparent combination of the angle at which the photographer stood and the word “count”, plus a bar on the glass, has created what must be a giant PR *facepalm* for the supermarket. It certainly made me laugh the first time I saw it. Since then, I’ve seen it dozens of times and I still have no idea if it’s genuine or Photoshopped – and, crucially, nor does anyone else. The rise of infographics is part of this: at their most dislikeable, they rely on the unquestioning response of many social media users. At best, they’re hard to verify as the actual data on which the graphic is based is usually not available; at worst, they deliberately mislead.
One image particularly caught my eye today: featuring what looks like a stock image of a couple at a computer, it bears a speech bubble saying: “I’m so happy we live in a world without slavery and imperialism.” Around the couple are vague captions decrying: “Orange juice – picked in Chile by women working 60 hours a week, below minimum wage”, and similar handwringing factoids devoid of any context. Minimum wage? By whose standards? The US’s? The UK’s? Where else do the oranges for orange juice come from, and in what conditions are they picked and processed? Yet despite this lack of information, it’s circulating widely via social media.
Social media increasingly enables us to choose to expose ourselves only to opinions that fit with our worldview: we follow people we chime with, read blogs that reinforce our opinions, “like” pages and causes that we support. Google’s personalised search filters out contrary voices by serving up “the most relevant results possible“. We are therefore increasingly retreating into spaces that limit our exposure to alternative voices and opinions. My attention span would rival that of a particularly inattentive gnat: it’s easy to see a tweet and nod in agreement; it’s much more challenging to go and seek out a variety of opinions around an issue.
As a result, I now reserve judgment on any trending topic until I’ve done a bit of reading for myself. It means I’m sometimes at odds with my peers and friends. That’s fine: healthy debate is the cornerstone of democracy. So next time you see a twitchfork mob approaching and baying for virtual blood, just pause a moment before picking up your twitchfork too: it’s impossible to convey nuance in a tweet or a Facebook post. The full story might be rather different.
• This article has been updated at 21.37 on 30.01.12 to correct a typo in the standfirst and trail. Thanks to commenters for pointing this out
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