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Journalists, please don’t leave — it’s time to fix Twitter

The New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman published an article titled “Why I need to pull back from Twitter,” raising legitimate concerns about growing frustration with the platform among journalists.

There’s so much content and so little context, writes Haberman, and it has become a struggle to sift through the news and views she receives, and to respond to those trying to engage her.

{mosads}For journalists and others who use Twitter mainly for news, the struggle is real. As Haberman said, “On Twitter, everything is shrunk down to the same size, making it harder to discern what is a big deal and what is not. Tone often overshadows the actual news. All outrages appear equal.”


Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in response that the company has long been working to help users wade through the clutter by introducing algorithmic filters that “rank” according to “what matters.”  But “what matters” is highly subjective. 

Traditional publishers historically have curated content, but the beauty of Twitter is that it is an unfiltered platform where all voices are broadcast equally.  User-networks amplify or engage with some content and let the rest fly by.  Every step away from this model is a step away from Twitter playing the part of a free speech platform.  But times seem to have changed.

Twitter takes flak for its lack of transparency regarding key decisions — who get censoredsuspended, or verified.  Like Facebook and Google, Twitter’s “black box” algorithms used to filter content do not help matters, since even those who build them cannot explain how they work. 

Haberman rightly bemoans “the viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning and sexism.” Being a micro-celebrity is hard, especially if you appear to identify with historically marginalized groups.  This is particularly true for women, who frequently confront sexism in the digital world

These problems facing Twitter, like those Facebook has faced, are among the most difficult challenges in 21st-century society.  But that’s no excuse not to try to improve things.

Twitter has been taking steps to clean up its platform by revoking access rights of malicious appsfake accounts, and some users that spew hate or violate terms of service.  Still, the company could do more.

Assuming the company gets a better handle on what civility looks like, Twitter could start rewarding good behavior.  By making “verification” an option accessible to all legitimate users, devoting more resources to vetting such requests, and making the famous blue check mark contingent on good behavior, Twitter could even the playing field while using the function to help determine credibility, and increase or decrease the visibility of a given user’s posts. 

The well-behaved could receive badges that increase legitimacy, and pay less for premium services, should Twitter ever decide to develop a subscription model.  Bad behavior could result in suspension or revocation of access to certain features.  And Twitter could engender a more civil culture by encouraging community policing to report destructive behavior. 

Of course, creating new rules creates opportunities for some to game the system, but that is already taking place.  Plus, research shows that gamification is an effective motivator.

These steps alone will not solve the problems Haberman outlines, since they are problems of public discourse and not limited to one medium. Still, social media companies cannot simply sit on their hands. 

For their part, journalists should think twice before abandoning Twitter.  The medium has far too important a role to play. 

Studies have shown that more than half of journalists use Twitter for professional purposes.  They track breaking news and make themselves more accessible to readers. While engaging with the “people formerly known as the audience” can take a toll on reporters, knowing what the public thinks is critical.  

My research has shown that we use social media not just to consume news, but also to participate in the process of making, sharing, and critiquing it.  Whether or not journalists have been responsive to the public, they have been there to hear them. 

The news media cannot regain trust if they stop listening to their audience.  So I urge journalists to stay with us on Twitter.  We need you.  The rules of the game are not perfect, the playing field is not even, and far too many bad actors remain among our ranks.  But, you are our “custodians of conscience,” our referees, if you will.  And, if you leave in the middle of this fight, we all lose.  

Stephen R. Barnard is an assistant professor of Sociology at St. Lawrence University, NY.  He is the author of “Citizens at the Gates: Twitter, Networked Publics, and the Transformation of American Journalism.”