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Media figures lament toxic Twitter

Media figures lament toxic Twitter
© The Hill illustration

High-profile journalists are saying they might leave Twitter after tweets attacking them and family members.

The latest controversy is underscoring how the popular social media platform has become toxic in the current political climate.

CNN reporter and commentator Chris Cillizza tweeted on Sunday that he was “about done” with Twitter, after tweets mocking his child’s peanut allergy.

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“We are talking about a 9 year old. Feel free to hate me. But don’t mock my son’s peanut allergy. Classless and indefensible,” Cillizza wrote.


MSNBC Anchor Chuck Todd also offered support to Cillizza and criticized the abuse.

“Every time I think Twitter can’t get worse, it does.  You people are awful. Leave the man’s family alone. Disgusting,” he tweeted.

Cillizza has remained on Twitter since the episode, but another prominent reporter has said she is taking a break from the social media platform.

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted on Monday that with the exception of sharing breaking news and her own stories, she would be stepping back from Twitter.

“No reason or prompt other than that it’s not really helping the discourse,” she explained.

Haberman’s not the only high-profile journalist to do so in recent months.

New York Times Magazine writer and Vice News Tonight correspondent Jay Caspian Kang, who was an active Twitter user, deactivated his account last month, without explanation.

In March, an Intercept journalist with a larger following, Lee Fang, also decided to leave, writing that Twitter is “unhealthy for many reasons.”

In 2017, New York Times political columnist Bret Stephens also said he was done with the platform in a column calling Twitter “the political pornography of our time” and claiming it was “debasing to its users.”

Stephens has kept his account but scaled back interactions. The account appears to only share his columns and other Times content, and in his column, he said he was handing it off to an assistant.

Matt Fuller, a congressional reporter for HuffPost, said he hasn’t considered quitting but has taken breaks in the past.

“Twitter is increasingly a little toxic because everyone is aggrieved, and everyone seems to think they have a right to not be aggrieved,” he said. Fuller has found himself on the receiving end of abusive campaigns from trolls.

Other journalists on Twitter have frequently raised concerns about the harassment directed at women and minority journalists.

Twitter attacks on journalists are not a new phenomenon.

Journalists criticized by President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE for their coverage regularly find their Twitter mentions overrun by his supporters, often using insulting language and sometimes crossing into personal attacks.

Other high-profile figures, such as Elon Musk, have also at times directed disparaging tweets at reporters.

Alan Rosenblatt, director of digital research at the left-leaning opinion firm Lake Research Partners, blamed Trump’s attacks for encouraging harassment of journalists on Twitter.

“Trump’s tweets and his own language offline has set the precedent and enabled people to come out of the woodwork and be more harassing and more mean-spirited than they otherwise would have been,” Rosenblatt said.

But he cautioned reporters against leaving. Every time the platform loses a respected voice, he said, it amplifies negative voices.

“If a reporter who is reporting the truth steps back from the conversation they are basically ceding the argument to the naysayers,” Rosenblatt said. “The naysayers are relentless though and will stay there anyway.”

Critics say abusive attacks aren’t just a problem for journalists. They say such experiences on Twitter are common for a wide range of users and blame the company for failing to take steps to police the platform and crack down on abusive behavior.

Actress Leslie Jones and British Member of Parliament Jess Phillips, among others, quit Twitter after personal attacks.

Twitter says it’s aware of the problem and trying to improve the “health” of its platform.

In March, Twitter launched an initiative aimed at taking down abusive and harassing tweets and reducing spam. It has also worked on improving algorithms to detect abusive or hateful speech.

Recently, the company booted millions of bots and fake accounts from its platform.

The efforts are an improvement, but rampant harassment is still prevalent on Twitter.

There are also larger questions about the repercussions for journalism if prominent reporters leave Twitter.

For many journalists, Twitter is a near-essential tool. Reporters have used it to build reputations and followings. They use it to promote and do their work. Twitter makes it easier to catch breaking news, find new sources and has become essential for covering Trump, who regularly makes news with his tweets.

Journalists can make an impact on the platform, quickly spreading news in some cases to hundreds of thousands of followers.

“Twitter can certainly add weight to your reporting. There are definitely some members [of Congress] who only give me the time of day because they’re afraid that not doing so might elicit a tweet,” Fuller said.

Twitter also faces risks if a large number of journalists, who are heavy users of the platform, disengage. Twitter has long struggled to build up its user base and engagement, before seeing gains in recent months.

Still, it would take a tremendous exodus to significantly hurt the company.

Recent high-profile departures haven’t radically changed the platform much and there other large communities and prominent figures outside of media who use Twitter regularly.

For all the debate among journalists on whether to quit, few actually have.

But many journalists now find themselves with a tough choice.

The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has said he would encourage young writers to stay off the platform but has said he knows walking away is hard.

“Every day I wake up and hope I have the courage to leave, and I think someday soon I’ll get it,” he said in an interview with Vox in 2016.

Coates left Twitter one year later, after a contentious public debate with academic Cornel West.