little over a week ago, as I was preparing for bed, I heard through the grapevine that there had been an explosion in Turin, Italy, where fans of Juventus FC had been watching their team play Real Madrid on a large screen in Piazza San Carlo. I’m currently living in Genoa, two hours to the south, and as a journalist knew that if anything untoward had occurred I’d need to be on the next train north.
Five years ago, I would have turned to Twitter and watched the situation unfold in real time, relatively certain, given the people I was following, that the information in my feed would be up-to-the-minute and, more importantly, accurate.
I didn’t do that when I heard about Turin. Instead, I visited the Italian newspapers’ websites. As a result, I knew what was actually going on long before many on the social network did.
At least since the Boston bombings four years ago, Twitter’s value as a news source has gradually but inexorably faded. In the case of Turin, long after the newspapers had reported that the explosion was a fireworks accident, Twitter was still comparing Turin to Manchester and marvelling at Europe’s latest terror attack. (Of course, not everyone was doing so: “There are people in Turin who actually support Juventus?” one wag wrote. “Now that’s a news story.”)
Even as English-language news sources caught up to the Italian ones, news-aggregation accounts with thousands of followers were still retweeting the original headlines, most of which hinted at malicious intent. For hours, Twitter users promised their follows that they’d never forget the victims.
What they had apparently forgotten was every other time social media had failed them as a news source over the past couple of years (though it’s entirely possible that it failed to tell them about these failures in the first place). The 2016 US presidential election put Facebook’s role and responsibilities in the spotlight. In 2013, the vigilantism that followed the Boston attack, which led to innocent parties being accused and subjected to harassment, put Reddit in it, too.
Twitter comes in for regular drubbings, by journalists and regular users alike, and disenchantment with it is nothing new. That’s partly because it did have some real and tangible successes early on.
I still smile when I think of Sohaib Athar, who effectively live-tweeted the raidthat killed Osama bin Laden, unaware that he was taking part in the year’s biggest story even if he wasn’t exactly breaking it. (That honour went to Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, who tweeted the news himself before it was officially announced.)
And the use of Twitter during the early days of the Arab Spring – before governments began to wise up and use it to crack down on activists – brought western and Arab reporters together, be they on the ground or in the office, with citizen journalists and ordinary people in a truly ground-breaking way.
That promise has largely been squandered. What Twitter most resembles now is a cable news channel. The hundreds of pundits talking at cross-purposes, breaking little but wind. The race-to-be-first mentality that precludes due diligence and fact-checking in favour of the win. (The tendency of news websites to post a single, deeply uninformative sentence followed by the words “More to come… ” is a similar result of this mindset.) The thousands of viewers – or in this case followers – who take what they’re told and run with it, even after the truth has been reported by professionals.
There are other similarities. It can be argued that the cultivation of personal brands on Twitter is not unlike the jockeying of cable news hosts for centrality – the channels breed names, not loyalists – and that most tweeters have given up on the multi-directional nature of the beast in favour of something more akin to traditional broadcasting. To this extent, the US president, Donald Trump, is the most representative of all contemporary tweeters. The thing has become little more than a megaphone, and not merely for publicising, as so many once feared, descriptions of what one had for lunch.
In 2012, I published an article in Metro Magazine called “Tweet the Press: How Social Media is Changing the Way Journalists Do Their Jobs.” I’ve never been a subscriber to what Evgeny Morozov has derisively called “technological solutionism” – for one thing, the digital divide remains too wide – but it’s interesting to go back now and see how enamoured I was with the platform at the time. I doubt I would have written the article otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t write it now.
My ardour wasn’t entirely shared by the journalists I interviewed. Mark Colvin, who before his untimely death last month was unarguably Australian journalism’s most prolific tweeter, said that every time he retweeted a link he went through “the usual process of triangulation to work out [the link’s] authenticity”.
When everyone is racing to be first, however, in that heady rush for retweets and likes, this doesn’t – indeed, can’t – happen.
Many journalists on Twitter continue to try. Many more have walked away from the platform and found that they are better for it. Still others have simply lowered their standards. The little blue bird has flown.