Twitter isn't the voice of the people, and media shouldn't pretend it is

Mass media love to include ordinary peoples' tweets in stories, but they may not be ordinary, or even people.
In news stories, journalists are routinely embedding tweets that actually come from bots instead of real people. (Pixabay)
Listen9:02

This segment originally aired in April, 2018.


Pretty much all news organizations embed tweets in their stories.

This may not be surprising; Twitter has become an indispensable part of the reporter's arsenal, allowing writers to dip into the public consciousness 140 (or 280) characters at a time.

But what is surprising, at least to most, is that 32 out of 33 major American news outlets—including NPR, Salon and The Washington Post—have recently embedded tweets from the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian "troll" factory backed by alleged associates of Vladimir Putin, and accused of spreading fake news that may have influenced the 2016 U.S. Election.

Last week, Heidi Tworek, who teaches the history of information at the University of British Columbia, published an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review detailing just how dependent journalists have become on Twitter, and not just to catch up on industry gossip.
Heidi Tworek (UBC)

"Twitter is the new vox pop," Tworek said, referring to the tradition of media seeking the opinion of ordinary people as a way of making stories more approachable.

However, very often tweets become the story, rather than a way of illustrating it. And then it's into dangerous territory, because there are so many users who are not 'real' people at all.

My plea is not to get rid of the ordinary people, I think that's deeply important. But we should make sure that they're ordinary, and that they're people.- Heidi Tworek

"Journalists need to be very careful about the way that they're actually propagating these embedded tweets. That's how 90 per cent of the population is seeing this sort of stuff," she said.

"My plea is not to get rid of the ordinary people, I think that's deeply important. But we should make sure that they're ordinary, and that they're people."

Using vox populi has always been a challenging thing, Tworek said, even when it came into widespread use in television news following the Second World War, where TV anchors would venture out to the street to ask people their opinions.

But it's important to remember that vox pops were never meant to be authoritative on a subject. "It's a tool of illustration, not of research," she said, citing old BBC guidelines. "And I'd add that it's not a tool of research or representation."

If journalists—or regular users—want to see whether a tweet actually comes from a real person, Tworek recommends using a service called botometer, developed by researchers at Indiana University. It will help identify whether a Twitter account actually represents to a real person.

And before putting a tweet into print or on the air, journalists can use a tried and true method of verifying someone's identity: the phone.

"Put in that extra five-to-ten minutes of effort just to check that somebody really is who they say they are."

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