Saturday, April 28, 2018 

Nota bene: <threads>

In my last note I worried, not very much, about journalistic purity, and wondered why Business Insider was disinterring so many old stories about Jeff Bezos from a five-year-old book. (Which came out in 2013, not in 2014 as I wrote in the email.) Was there some kind of ulterior motivation?

Turns out that there was: On April 24, Jeff Bezos became the third recipient (after Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Berners-Lee) of the Axel Springer Award. There was a grand dinner and ceremony, with the likes of Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg participating; this thing is a big deal. Axel Springer, of course, is the owner of Business Insider; the master of ceremonies was BI editor Alyson Shontell.

This particular award was particularly incestuous because Bezos invested $37 million in BI before it was sold to Springer, and indeed held on to a 3% stake in the company for another year after the sale, before finally cashing out to the Germans in 2016. There’s nothing particularly bad here, although in the interests of transparency it would probably have been nice for the BI posts to note the upcoming award.

The big picture is unchanged: Business Insider is still a clearly journalistic outlet, which can reasonably be held to (and hold itself to) journalistic standards; people like me can bellyache about whether, in certain instances, it may or may not be falling short, while everybody else is probably fine just broadly trusting what they read.

Recently, however, I’ve been seeing a new form of journalism, which is very popular while also not being part of any formal journalistic institution. It’s powerful, it’s viral, and it effectively disintermediates journalists.

Just in the past few days:

Wednesday saw a viral thread from @kelseybew_, about the mistreatment of her boyfriend at the hands of the police.

Thursday saw a viral thread from @ericabuddington, about a woman who was stalked by her abusive boyfriend, with the active help of the police.

Friday saw a viral thread from @AmberJPhillips, about the way she was mistreated by police after a complaint by the woman in the seat next to her on an airplane.

The first one was the most viral — over 100,000 retweets — and soon ran into online debunking from journalistic outlets who could find no evidence that the events recounted actually happened. The other two, I daresay, are entirely true. But there’s no journalistic institution to vouch for them, even as they are being shared and referred back to in much the same way that journalism is shared.

Clearly people are getting very good at using Twitter threads to tell stories which can fire up the online outrage machine. Many of those stories will be true, and deserve to be heard. Equally, however, individual Twitter users have no way of fact-checking them, and it’s probably only a matter of time before Russia’s Internet Research Agency starts publishing similar threads during contentious elections. For all I know, they’ve already done so.

Stories like these must be told, and Twitter is a great medium for doing that. But if many or even eventually most of them turn out to be fakes, that would be a horrible outcome. And I don’t see any real way of preventing that from happening.