Twitter, Media, and Change

My mom informed me about the federal court’s ruling on voting fraud in the last election before it was reported in the mainstream media because she was tracking it on Twitter (not that the mainstream media seems to be too interested anyway).

A couple days later when I asked how the Globe and Mail paywall affected her night-time news-reading ritual, my aunt informed me: “Guess I’m getting more of my news from Twitter.”

Plenty has been written about the death of the newspaper; and it seems like for some of my family, they’re replacing it with Twitter. Maybe I’m not the best person to comment. Initially, a complete Twitter-sceptic, I now observe from afar: I regularly read my favourite hockey writers and my mom’s feeds, but I don’t have an account of my own. As frequent readers may have guessed, the 140-character limit does not suit me. I find that it limits the capacity to communicate nuance and therefore increases the possibility of being misunderstood. There was one point about a year ago, where I warned my mother that her Twitter feed made her sound like more of a political extremist than she was.  So, while brevity may be the soul of wit,[1] I am a long-winded Polonius. You could say that my attitude towards Twitter is better suited to a grumpy old man. However, the more I reflect on it, the more I realise Twitter doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table; rather it simply magnifies, extends, and intensifies the way we already interact with the media.[2]

“The Readers’ Prejudices”

The internet has been praised for opening up dialogue and breaking down barriers.  However, while it’s very easy to find viewpoints with which you don’t agree on the internet, this ideal is generally not what happens. Instead, people tend to use the internet to find and interact with like-minded people. As  Twitter feeds are filled with people who they choose to follow, Twitter acts as a personalised collator of information that confirms people’s pre-existing ideas. I found it interesting how after the recent murders in Woolwich, my Facebook feed filled up with condemnation of the racist backlash, but was itself devoid of any racist backlash. Not that the confirmation bias arrived with Twitter. The following clip from the satirical 1980s British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister does a fairly good job of describing today’s British print media.

As viewers of Yes, Prime Minister understand, media outlets will always be guided by the political perspectives of their writers and their readers. What Twitter and the internet do is make it easier for those with less mainstream ideas to find others who think like them. In Vancouver, we don’t have a diversity of mainstream newspapers like they do in the UK—both The Vancouver Sun and The Province are owned by the same company and often share material. Before the rise of the internet, alternative newspapers were available; you just had to try a lot harder to find them. Now, no matter what you believe, with a click of a button, you can find a community of people who agree with you. Does that mean more communication across barriers? Not really. It might help people find their niche, but once they do find it, they tend to stick there. Sure, I’ve spent an afternoon captivated by the sheer foreignness of a White Supremacy Forum, but I certainly haven’t visited since. Generally the people brave enough to respectfully engage with people of different opinions on the internet are those who would do so without it. Most of us, would rather stick to what we know (perhaps only crossing lines to fling a little mud and shout obscenities), and thus, only take in news from whatever perspective we secretly—or not so secretly—want to receive it from.

“Unlike Polonius, I’m also not a fan of iPads”

“Unlike Polonius, I’m also not a fan of iPads”

Breaking News

In this piece, Simon Ricketts does a very good job of contextualising the role of Twitter during disasters as a “canary down the mine,” which is the first to inform the world of the disaster before descending into a hysterical mixture of rumour, semi-truths and empty platitudes as everybody feels obligated to comment. However, that same description could be applied to 24-Hour news networks. Their urge to constantly speak may be even greater than that on Twitter. The inconsistencies in early media reports spawned by their urgency to be “first on the story,” have provided plenty of material for conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the Sandy Hook tragedy among others. The need to report news on 24-hour news network reaches even beyond large world events: one of my favourite This Hour Has 22 Minutes sketches—which I could not find on the internet—depicted a breathless CNN news team covering the breaking news that a door would soon be opened.

In addition, media-spawned rumour and hysteria go back far farther than network news.  Following World War I, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express are said to have whipped up continual anti-refugee paranoia spawning anti-Semitic pressure groups across the UK and increased immigration restrictions. While studying for my Politics of Narcotic Drugs module, I came across a case study of how British media reports of two high-profile deaths—those of actress Billie Carleton 1919 and dance instructor Freda Kempton in 1922—lead to moral panics and eventual legislation restricting “Dangerous Drugs.” One could probably go back past the witch-hunts, past the Spanish Inquisition, past the Egyptian attitude toward Jews described in Exodus 1:8-13 to the beginning of human history, and still find the same patterns. Twitter just makes the cycle happen a whole lot faster.

“Twitter would have gone nuts, too”?

“Twitter would have gone nuts, too”?

Conclusion

“Why am I writing this?” I ask myself staring at what I’ve just written. “What the heck am I trying to say?” I’m not exactly sure. I’m not trying to say that the world isn’t changing… It is. I’m not trying to say that the world shouldn’t change… Because it will. Technology is making us more interconnected and interdependent, as it magnifies, extends and intensifies human interaction; however, the human interaction at the source is relatively unchanging. So, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that as the world changes around us, we’re not exactly changing with it.


[1] I’m not a fan of Shakespeare, but that particular line has stuck with me from English 12

[2] Full Disclosure: I stole that phrase from my Global Governance professor’s definition of “globalisation.” If like him, you understand globalisation as “the magnification, extension and intensification of all forms of human relatedness,” then, you could say that Twitter is contributing to globalisation.

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