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On January 28, 2016, The New York Times embarked on a gargantuan feat of performance art: tracking all of President Donald Trump’s insults on Twitter since declaring his candidacy. The performance warranted an equally unprecedented platform, which included a rare two-page spread in the October 24, 2016 print issue of the Times and an interactive, color-coded online version, which has since ballooned to feature 305 unique targets of Trump’s 140-character swords.
At its best, “The 305 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter” is a bold, comprehensive map of a singular online personality, straying from the traditional listicle or “Twitter reax” format that has come to litter digital media. At its worst, the article is a preposterous art collection of shiny digital objects, obscuring more pressing issues and demonstrating an over-reliance on social media that exacerbates the very problems newsrooms should be solving.
The most memorable investigative journalism can be boiled down to the simple yet arduous act of collecting—of gathering and weaving disparate perspectives into a coherent narrative. One can make an analogy to the art collecting world. When collecting art, the “hunt” is often the most thrilling part of the experience: searching far and wide for the best work, negotiating a fair price with the original owner, and facing competition from other collectors. Even before this “hunt” begins, collectors have to gather extensive information about their objects of interest (Where are they located? What are they worth?) in order to develop an expertise that will shape their collection for years to come. Likewise, smart investigative journalism requires dozens of in-depth interviews, not to mention substantial, carefully-researched background and context.
The rise of Twitter-based journalism has bastardized this collecting culture by reducing the “hunt” to passive scrolling through newsfeeds, and the required “expertise” to practically nothing. Most digital newsrooms are complicit in this reduction; modern journalistic reward structures (read: pageviews and ad revenue) and risk-averse budgets tend to prize scooplets and hot takes over long-term research.
As a result, more writers are collecting tweets as their primary sources, particularly because the natural amplification effect of Twitter’s “retweet” feature allows onlookers to track potential trends or breaking news stories in real time. For this reason, some have argued that Twitter is “next week’s thinkpiece today.”
Accompanying this rush for content, however, is an affinity for more hyperbolic language. “Everyone is talking about it” has become one of the most commonly used phrases in online media—even if the vague concept of “everyone” refers only to Twitter’s declining share of Internet users.
Indeed, there is a significant problem with relying on Twitter as a gauge for public opinion. Firstly, like Facebook, Twitter gamifies users’ abilities to agree with each other in the form of hearts and retweets, inherently disadvantaging independent or unpopular thought. Secondly, Twitter thrives on incrementalism—idea generation in small, easily-digestible, arguably unrepresentative steps, versus bigger-picture moonshots. Hence, a journalistic piece based solely on Twitter could make it more difficult to distinguish mountains from molehills, and in turn could easily manufacture trends such as the rise of the #BernieBro (versus the more organic growth of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #LoveIsLove).
Finally, while human beings have always borrowed ideas from each other, a debate remains over whether ideas on Twitter are truly “open-source” and available for manipulation simply because they surface on a public platform. When you publish a tweet, are you doing so as a private citizen speaking to a niche group of followers, or are you automatically renouncing control and consenting to virality, if you’re lucky enough to be “chosen” by the news hivemind?
In recent press conferences, Trump has called journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” and declared that he will continue to use Twitter to battle them. This means that the media comprise the precise intended audience for his digital collection of diatribes, and are falling for his trap—relinquishing their prized journalistic “hunt” for the immediacy of his controversy.
Cherie Z. Hu ’17, a Statistics and Music concentrator, lives in Adams House.
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