Do journalists pay too much attention to Twitter?

Twitter may not have the same globe-spanning reach as Facebook, but one group of professional users has adopted it en masse: journalists. The lure of an always-on, news-heavy social network that includes access not just to an audience of consumers but direct input from newsmakers like Donald Trump is impossible to resist for many in the media. But is this a good thing? Journalists often say they spend too much time on Twitter, and wind up devoting more time than they should to stories that come to them via tweets. Should Twitter play such an oversized role in what the media chooses to cover and how they cover it?

A new study attempts to get at whether journalists ascribe too much importance to Twitter. Shannon McGregor of The University of Utah and Logan Molyneux of Temple University performed an experiment involving about two hundred journalists—some who use Twitter heavily and some who use it only moderately. Some of the subjects saw only headlines from the Associated Press website, while others were also randomly shown tweets that contained AP headlines, but had been manipulated to look like anonymous tweets. The researchers then asked the journalists to rate the newsworthiness of the tweets. The result? Journalists who said they spend a lot of time on Twitter and rely on it for their work ranked the anonymous tweets as high or higher than the AP stories (this effect declined the longer a journalist had been working in the industry).

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“Our results indicate that the routinization of Twitter into news production affects news judgment,” the researchers write. “For journalists who incorporate Twitter into their reporting routines, and those with fewer years of experience, Twitter has become so normalized that tweets were deemed equally newsworthy as headlines appearing to be from the AP wire. This may have negative implications.” Among those implications, they argue, is that journalists can get caught up in a kind of pack mentality in which a story is seen as important because other journalists on Twitter are talking about it, rather than because it is newsworthy.

The researchers argue it can also distort the way a story is reported. For example, when the  photo of Chris Christie looking uncomfortable while standing behind Donald Trump in 2016 was published by the AP, Twitter exploded with jokes, and multiple news outlets wrote about it, but those familiar with Christie said there was nothing unusual about his expression. There are also more serious examples: The study notes a study of tweets posted by Russian agents working for the notorious “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency found more than 30 news outlets—including NPR, The Washington Post, and BuzzFeed—had embedded tweets from fake accounts in their news stories.

Although there are potential downsides to journalists relying so much on Twitter, the researchers did highlight one potential positive: The social network may be broadening the range of sources beyond traditional information gatekeepers. “To the extent that the public now constructs its own news feeds by combining traditional media, social media, and algorithmic recommendations, this power is redistributed,” they write. “The benefit, from a democratic standpoint, may be that journalists could come to rely less on official or elite sources, and begin to include a wider range of news sources coming through social media.”

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Related: What a professor learned after interviewing a ‘lost generation’ of journalists

Here’s more on the complex relationship between Twitter and the media:

  • Misinfo central: Despite Twitter’s recent attempts to crack down on misinformation and fake accounts, a recent study found that more than 80 percent of the users and accounts that spread misinformation during the 2016 election are still active. “Twitter has absolutely taken some measures to take some sites down, but they have not taken the vast majority of what we looked at down,” one of the researchers told Politico.
  • Likes as a weapon: In a new book entitled “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” two national security experts write about how social media is being used to expand the theater of war. “We saw how not just the definition of those war zones was expanding, but also how the very same tactics, the very same players, were popping up in other realms, from politics to news,” they told The Atlantic in a recent interview.
  • Fake news laws: A number of countries including Kenya and Egypt are either considering or have already passed legislation aimed at getting rid of “fake news,” but in Singapore, BuzzFeed News reports that there is a concern among local journalists the legislation proposed in that country could become just another tool for the government to go after journalists and media outlets they disapprove of.
  • Losing the war: Despite a crackdown by both Twitter and Facebook, some experts say we are losing the war against social-media misinformation, because the professional trolls who want to misuse those networks are changing their methods. “The fake news merchants are a step ahead, thanks to techniques that allow them to mask their location, masquerade as local activists and purchase political ads in countries’ local currencies to dodge rules against foreign influence,” a recent Politico piece argues.
  • Identify yourself: Since much of the misinformation problem seems to be driven by bots or automated accounts, California recently passed a law that requires automated accounts to identify themselves as bots. The law, which takes effect next year, makes it illegal for bots that are interacting with California consumers to pretend they’re human if they’re trying to sell goods, services, or to “influence a vote in an election.”
  • Watch those tweets: In the latest example of a journalist undone by their own tweets, the Washington-based correspondent for Russian news service RT is facing a “disciplinary review” after she posted tweets praising the gulag prisons set up by dictator Joseph Stalin. Sameera Khan shared two posts (which have since been deleted) arguing that the prisons weren’t as bad as liberals claim. Khan has since apologized, and RT said it “strongly condemns the posts.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • Forbes is partnering with Civil, the startup that is trying to build a platform for journalism using cryptocurrency and the blockchain. The magazine becomes the first traditional publisher to experiment with the platform (although Civil also has a partnership with Associated Press), which will involve simultaneously publishing some of its content on the Civil blockchain as well as on the magazine’s website. (CJR profiled Civil here.)
  • Facebook is setting up a task force that will try to prevent bad actors from influencing voters in India’s elections next year, according to a report from the news service IANS. “The team will have security specialists and content specialists, among others, who will try to understand all the possible forms of election-related abuse in India,” Facebook’s vice president of global policy solutions said during a workshop in New Delhi.
  • Amanda Darrach writes for CJR about the political polarization of the small town of Santa Clarita, California, where new owners acquired the local newspaper and turned it inexorably towards the right, to the point where a group of local residents decided to start their own competing outlet.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported that Google refrained from announcing a flaw in its Google+ social network that might have exposed user information because it was worried about the negative publicity, but some security experts argue that since there was no proof that any data was actually exposed or misused, Google did the right thing by not mentioning it until now.
  • A controversial Bloomberg report about an alleged Chinese exploit involving a microchip implanted in products made by Apple and Amazon has taken another turn: A security researcher who was one of the named sources for the piece says the story duplicated theories he described to the reporter as hypothetical possibilities.
  • Google executives have said they don’t have any current plans to release a censored version of their search product for use in China, one which would allegedly blacklist terms like “human rights,” but a transcript of a meeting obtained by The Intercept shows the executive in charge of the product talked about launching “as soon as possible.”
  • The election underway in Brazil has shown that WhatsApp is a vortex of misinformation aimed at trying to sway voters, according to a report from BuzzFeed, based on interviews with the administrators of a fact-checking service called Eleições Sem Fake (Elections Without Fakes). Many of the most pernicious rumors are spread by users in private groups, which are difficult if not impossible to monitor, the group says.

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter inaccurately described a recent study of journalists who rated the newsworthiness of tweets. The study showed journalists headlines from the AP website, while also randomly showing some of those journalists tweets that contained AP news headlines but had been manipulated to look like anonymous tweets.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.