Over the last year, I’ve written frequently in these pages about social media in general, and Twitter in particular. This focus might seem strange, given that most people do not use Twitter and likely never will. Does the site and whoever happens to own it actually matter? What would change if it disappeared tomorrow? These are reasonable questions. So today, I want to explain how Twitter influences your life and the information you consume, even if you’ve never used it.
Back in June 2021, I was interviewed by the journalist Graham Vyse for a smart new publication called The Signal. The topic: how Twitter forges consensus among the journalists, commentators, politicians, and other decision makers who govern our society—and how that consensus often turns out to be wrong.
We talked about how Twitter profoundly shapes what elites believe and do, determines whose stories get told, and affects which voices get heard. We discussed how the site’s groupthink influenced everything from COVID-19 coverage to the reflexive dismissal of both Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s presidential prospects. And we tackled the ways in which Twitter undermines trust in journalists and journalism. In short, we unpacked how this relatively small social-media site affects the rest of us, regardless of whether we’ve ever logged on to it.
Though the exchange is more than a year old, the points we covered have clear applications today. To take one example, they help explain why so many media outlets mistakenly predicted an impending “red wave” in the 2022 midterm election, even though the polls showed no such thing.
The interview was published behind a paywall, but given its relevance to recent events, The Signal kindly gave me permission to republish it, with some light editing. If you like what you learn, and want to read more conversations like it, you can subscribe to them here.
Graham Vyse: How should we understand the dynamics of journalists on Twitter?
Yair Rosenberg: As many have pointed out, Twitter enables people who previously couldn’t be heard to be heard. Someone like me, writing for a Jewish publication [as I was at the time], has vastly wider readership as a result of Twitter. I criticize Twitter and what it does to journalism, but my career wouldn’t be the same without it, and that’s true for a lot of people from marginalized communities. They’re able to show they know what they’re talking about and have real contributions to make to the public conversation. They don’t have to go through all of the gatekeeping. That’s part of what the optimistic narrative of the internet was always about.
What we’ve seen over the past four years or so, coinciding with the Trump administration, is a greater recognition of social media’s negative effects. I often see Twitter, not creating problems but intensifying preexisting human tendencies. It’s not that Twitter created the tendency to forge a false consensus based on social pressures among elites, for example. It’s just that Twitter made it a lot easier to do it, enforce it, and raise the cost for dissenting from the popular consensus on a given issue.
Vyse: You refer to “forging a false consensus” and say that Twitter incentivizes groupthink among journalists. What does that look like?
Rosenberg: This is a great example of social media intensifying a preexisting problem. It’s well understood by media critics like Jack Shafer and Ben Smith that journalists are social creatures who exist at journalistic outlets and in journalistic communities where they’re influenced by their peers and the prevailing narratives. If you’re writing about a particular topic in your newspaper, you have to write in such a way that your editor will like, publish, and hopefully promote you. This incentivizes covering issues in the exact same way as the last people who did it. Similarly, if all the journalists at cocktail parties in Washington, D.C., are talking about issues in a particular way, there are particular grooves in which conversation will go.
But your ability to see things sometimes comes from distance. I’ve looked back on some of the bigger misses in my political prognostication on, say, Israeli politics, and almost always they were because I was too plugged in to what journalists were saying.
Those dynamics all predated Twitter. But Twitter makes them worse. You could, in theory, disconnect yourself—geographically and otherwise—from the consensus in the past, but now everybody is on Twitter, and Twitter is the consensus. It influences what you think and what you feel you can and can’t say. It becomes this mass socialization mechanism for journalists. That’s how you end up with all sorts of ill effects and big misses.
A good example is the idea that Trump couldn’t win in 2016. If you looked at the polls, it sure looked like Trump could win all the way through, but we believed he was somehow going to collapse. No one could explain how, but we all just knew it. Even though I could intellectually think through all of the reasons he could win, I didn’t internalize it, because all of my peers didn’t really believe it. I’d been socialized not to believe it. That was a wake-up call for me. That was a shattering moment. Some people learned from it and some people didn’t.
In 2020, some people mistook Twitter enthusiasm—the fact that you could get “President Bernie Sanders” trending—for voter enthusiasm, even as polls showed Biden winning in various important states. I decided I needed to start looking at other indicators of the national mood, including polls, and doing reporting in places that were representative statistically. That led me to conclude Biden was a very strong candidate with a very good chance of winning the primary and also the general election. This was a weird, countercultural view for some reason, because people didn’t really internalize the lesson of 2016 that what Twitter is saying isn’t actually how the world is working.
Twitter isn’t very good at self-reflection. Twitter doesn’t ever take a step back, because it’s so immediate and instantaneous—always churning and changing—and no one ever has a moment to ask what we got right, what we got wrong, and why. There’s never a conversation about how Twitter was super anti people buying masks and then super pro people buying masks.
Vyse: Bari Weiss, the former editor in the opinion section at The New York Times, says she once proposed an experiment where no employee of the paper was allowed to use Twitter for six months. Would that be practical?
Rosenberg: It’s a worthwhile thought experiment. I think there are good reasons why that doesn’t happen. If you leave but other people don’t leave, you’re ceding a competitive advantage and hurting your ability to get your message out. There would have to be a coordinated ceasefire.
I do think there’s something to be said for a publication saying they don’t want their reporters to tweet without every tweet going through editorial oversight just like what’s published in print. A lot of us writers benefit from having that extra set of eyes.
Vyse: Part of the dynamic here seems to be about the idea of journalists as individuals—with individual brands and followings on social media—versus the idea of journalists embedded in institutions.
Rosenberg: It’s one good reason journalists would be upset if you told them they couldn’t tweet. Twitter is a mechanism for financial security. If you build a following on Twitter, you might leave your publication, but you can bring some of your readership with you elsewhere. It’s hard to tell a writer they can’t or shouldn’t do that.
One thing I worry about as a journalist is that there are things I report on that are extremely important, that I want people to pay attention to, and that I know something about. But Twitter encourages us to comment on everything going on, whether or not we know anything about it. The real issue isn’t journalists tweeting about their areas of expertise but rather journalists tweeting about things they’re not experts about. If you get exposed for not knowing what you’re talking about, that inevitably is used to discredit good work you’ve done.
Vyse: What encourages this impulse to comment on everything?
Rosenberg: If everyone around you is talking about something, then you’ll opine. If that’s happening at a party, it’s not as big a deal, but if it’s on a public platform that’s preserved in perpetuity, you end up risking discrediting other things you might say.
Vyse: When Bari Weiss resigned from the Times, she wrote in her resignation letter, “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.”
What did you think of that?
Rosenberg: The challenge of talking about an institution like the Times is sort of like talking about an institution like the United Nations. It’s gargantuan. You can’t reduce it to one thing. Bari Weiss is getting at something real, which isn’t just true of the Times. Twitter is the public editor of a lot of conservative publications. It’s just that it used to be Trump’s Twitter feed that was the public editor. A lot of publications are now very responsive to particular social-media audiences in ways that are not necessarily reflective of what the general public is looking for.
That said, there’s still a wide diversity of views being debated and discussed at the Times. I could easily name so many reporters there whose work I respect tremendously. At the Times and many other publications, you can often see the influence of social media shaping how a story gets told—or which stories get told. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes social media brings up a story that needs to get told, but sometimes it’s misleading as to what reality is.
Vyse: Viral video also relates directly to Twitter’s influence on the news industry. Journalists often feel compelled to write about a video going viral.
Rosenberg: I want to be clear: I’ve done this.
Vyse: Most of us have.
Rosenberg: But is it actually news? Or is it just the internet writing about itself because it gets clicks? A tremendous amount of unvetted, misleading, and propagandized content goes viral and then leads news organizations around by the nose. It just makes our jobs as journalists a lot harder. It was easier to be a journalist 20 years ago. You used to have much more lead time and space to investigate, expose errors, and fix problems. Now you have to vet information much faster with much less of a cushion. It leads to many more errors.
A lot of the solution lies in training all people to use social media in an intelligent way. Maybe you have to be teaching kids in schools. All of us were socialized into social media with nobody training us. We’re just this giant experiment nobody signed up for, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Vyse: What role does Twitter play in professional networking in the journalism business and in editors assigning or commissioning pieces?