World·Analysis

Neil Macdonald: Adventures in Twitter-land

There are no editors in Twitter-land, just impulses and send buttons and watchdog zealots who patrol the web for their own special interests.

Last spring, as I arrived at Egypt's fly-blown border in its western desert, I noticed (you could hardly help but notice) a line of Egyptian tanks, one about every fifty metres in both directions, all pointing their long barrels into Libya.

"You should tweet that," my producer suggested.

I had no idea how to tweet. But I knew Twitter had become the big thing, and CBC was hugely interested in it, so after my producer showed me how to set up an account, I duly sent out a bulletin about the tanks.

It was my very first 140-character news report. It reminded me of calling the Ottawa Citizen city desk back in the 1970s, asking for "rewrite" and filing a late bulletin from some crime scene.

In the months that followed, I fell into Twitter's thrall, as so many of my colleagues have.

I resolved not to send out brain burps, but to at least try to pass on serious insights, or "re-tweet" nice pieces of work by colleagues.

It got to the point where I would read the newspapers or cover big events with Twitter at hand, sending out links and commentaries.

Like most tweeters, I measured my success by my modest, but slowly growing number of followers. Eventually, the number hit about 4,000. (Nothing to brag about. My comedian brother has 349,000.)

I would even get into long discussions on Twitter, like one in January about gun control.

There was a big story that day about a single mother in Oklahoma who called 911 when someone was breaking into her house and asked the dispatcher if she could use one of her late husband's guns to defend herself.

In the end, that is what she did, killing an intruder who was apparently looking for her late husband's stash of painkillers.

Paths to go down

I asked rhetorically on Twitter what might have happened to this woman had she faced the same situation in rural Ontario, where it is much harder to obtain a gun.

Former U.S. congressman and Twitter casualty Anthony Weiner, admitting in June 2011 that did indeed send a lewd photo of himself to a 21-year-old female college student on his Twitter account. (Reuters)

That provoked quite a discussion, with me taking the position that looser gun laws don't necessarily result in a spike in crime, and that there is a reasonable case to be made to make it easier for people in rural areas to arm themselves.

One person tweeted that the Oklahoma woman probably have been killed had she lived in Canada, but that's the price to be paid for a safer society.

I noted that gun crime actually fell several years ago in Virginia when the state passed a law allowing people to carry firearms openly.

I also added that: "I lived in Israel, the most gun-owning population on Earth," and that "Israelis seldom shoot one another." The point being that most Israelis are pretty disciplined with their personal firearms.

As an afterthought, constrained by the few remaining characters, I added: "Let's not go down the other path."

My initiative

I was trying to prevent the discussion from veering off into the Israel-Palestine debate, which is not just tiresome, but which tends to provoke emotional rather than rational argument.

It is a fact that Israelis, especially the heavily armed extremist settlers, have shot Palestinians. It is also true Palestinians, having managed to lay their hands on weapons forbidden to them by Israel, have shot Israelis.

I just didn't want to get into it.

But I'd mentioned Israel, which attracted the attention of the web vigilantes who constantly troll the internet for any mention of their cause.

Earlier this month, I received a note from my boss saying CBC had received an official complaint from a group that calls itself Honest Reporting Canada, and could I please explain that tweet?

I did. Then I deactivated my Twitter account, sending out a final message: "Have concluded tweeting supplies CBC's detractors with ammunition for attacks. So, voluntarily closing Twitter account. My initiative."

Abbreviated bait

My logic was this: Twitter is a candid medium and, as such, a bit of a honey trap for journalists. Send out a thoughtless thought after a glass of wine, and beware.

David Carr of the New York Times wrote a cautionary column about this recently — "Twitter is all good fun, until it isn't" — listing a few casualties. There have been others.

Twitter is also 140 characters, forcing abbreviation and shorthand. Such as my afterthought about "let's not go down the other path."

I can understand Twitter's value in a breaking-news situation, and from places like the Egyptian border with Libya, and why CBC managers are so bullish on it.

But often, Twitter seems more about intellectual showing off, or making smarty-pants comments, or announcing banalities like "at the airport waiting for my flight."

At the same time, it gives the zealots, whose mission is to defend some cause or other, or who just want to wage war against the "lamestream media," another hole from which to fish. A hole full of off-the-cuff, abbreviated bait.

Many of the professional complainers know that the CBC, and other serious journalistic institutions, treat even the most ridiculous complaints with respect, and take the time to answer.

Almost inevitably, those complainants ignore the replies from news managers and appeal to higher-ups or the ombudsman, looking for the kind of gotcha score they can use to trumpet their own worth and maybe even for fundraising.

I have no idea how CBC will respond to the complaint about my tweet. My response would be to dismiss it as frivolous. (Frankly, I find Honest Reporting Canada's very title somewhat ironic.)

I will take all the time in the world to respond to an individual viewer who writes a note expressing a genuine concern. Heaven knows reporters screw up sometimes.

But the organization that complained about my tweet seems to feel it's scored a big one. It posted an item on its website bragging about having forced CBC to shut down my Twitter account, and how "pleased" it is to have "defused one more weapon in MacDonald's arsenal."

The truth is, CBC tried —and continues to try — to persuade me to reopen the Twitter account. I am the one demurring. If there was pressure, it was to ignore the gadflies and keep tweeting.

But my spider-sense tells me this tweeting business is unwise. It has already resulted in a firing and a suspension at CNN and, inevitably, some of my other colleagues will hang themselves, too, either by tweeting something really stupid, or some remark that someone with an ax to grind can easily distort.

As my first boss told me 36 years ago, everybody needs an editor. I can personally attest to that. A few smart editors over the years have rescued me from some really awful blunders.

But there are no editors in Twitter-land. Just impulses and "send" buttons.

The "watchdog" zealots who patrol the web are to me about as significant as people who shout rude things from their cars to interrupt an on-camera report. They have no traction outside their own specialized followings.

But in this case, I should thank them for reminding me what my actual job is: providing thoughtful analysis and considered reports, not a series of one-liners.

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