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2 September 2014 23:08 (South Africa)
Opinionista Rebecca Davis

The new Vox Populi: Twits on Twitter

  • Rebecca Davis
Look, the medium has its uses. It’s often a journalist’s best friend when it gets to breaking news. But it can also be her greatest enemy when it gets to making it. By REBECCA DAVIS.

We journalists find ourselves in a strange relationship with Twitter. Its ability to break stories has now been documented to the point of catatonic boredom. Social analysts have all alternately celebrated or deplored the rise of citizen journalism, the (theoretical) weakening of the stranglehold of traditional news monopolies, the (hypothetical) democratisation of the public space. Most journalists rely on Twitter daily, both to keep an eye on breaking news in a more rapid fashion than would otherwise be feasible, and to get a feel for public sentiment on an issue.

It is this second aspect which interests me. It is not uncommon these days to find stories where the only “sources” are comments made on social networks, or in other internet spaces. Consider the “Usain Bolt race row” story last week, which made headlines worldwide. It was British tabloid the Daily Mail which first “broke” this “story”, claiming the Jamaican sprinter faced a barrage of criticism for dating a white woman.

When you read the original story, however, it becomes clear that the tabloid’s only sources for this were a handful of online comments. One online posting said: “Really now Usain! Some successful black men obviously suffer from a white woman complex. You too?”, and another complained: “Another one of our men snatched.” In total, the article quoted seven anonymous online commentators.

The journalist seemed to have gleaned most of these comments reacting to a photograph of Bolt kissing his new girlfriend, which was published in the Jamaican Observer last month, so I went back and had a look at it.

There were a total of 22 comments on the picture at the time of writing: hardly what one would call an online shit storm. Of these, nine condemned Bolt for his interracial relationship, but another nine either expressed approval or criticised the other comments, and the remaining four did not address the race issue in any way.

So at best we can say: 42% of the 22 people who commented on one picture of Bolt criticised his decision to date a white woman. Type “Usain Bolt race row” into Google, however, and you’ll now get 1,4 million results.

Of course, you might argue that it’s likely those nine people represented a far wider public sentiment, speaking for people who did not comment but endorsed their views. Fine, but then we have to give as much weighting to the idea that the nine people who approved of Bolt’s choices also represented a far wider public sentiment.

This is, naturally, what tabloids do: stoke scandal out of nothing much, and it was ever thus, and will ever be so. But it is also a truism that the advent of social media and online commenting has made it much easier for journalists to access “public opinion”. Vox pops – soliciting the opinions of ordinary citizens – have long been a standard feature of journalism, and rightly so: the media hold a mirror up to society and all that.

But it used to be the case that journalists seeking to gauge the public mood would have to actually leave their chairs, walk on to the street and ask people what they think – and then get them to put their name to that opinion. How many of the anonymous critics of the Bolt picture would be willing to firmly face a TV camera and endorse those views, with a strip running underneath their face identifying them to the world?   

Cyberspace is a place where cowards can run amok, protected by anonymity, fake email addresses or obscure avatars, at liberty to shoot their bile all over the internet. When journalists give power and volume to these views, we are skewing the debate, because we have no idea of their origins. For all we know, the nine negative commentators on the Bolt picture could have been a single individual with an axe to grind – this certainly would not be unprecedented in the murky world of online commenting.

Thanks to fishing-trips on social networks and online comment boards, we journalists are amplifying certain voices and giving them a weight which is out of all proportion to their actual significance or wider relevance. Which brings me to the South African racist-model-tweet debacle. 

I am familiar with the arguments that Jessica Leandra Dos Santos and Tshidi Thamana’s rantings on Twitter are fair game to report on because Twitter is a public space. It seems to me, though, that we are increasingly treating Twitter (and Facebook) uniquely in this regard. Would it be national and international news if a little-known model walked into another public space – say, a stand-up comedy open-mic night – and made a racist comment? Maybe. Imagine a reporter pitching this to her editor: “So I was at this open-mic night last night, and this one chick said something seriously racist.” Would the editor bite? Maybe. But I’m not totally convinced.

It is simply the case that, since the invention of the alphabet, we grant more heft to the written word than the spoken word – racial epithets rendered textually rather than verbally seem to be considered to leave a more serious imprint on the world, even if immediately deleted. 

You may say that what made this story newsworthy was that Dos Santos is a “public figure”, but this seems wholly disingenuous given that 98% of us had never dreamed of her existence until last Friday. This holds doubly for the other “model”, Tshidi Thamana, who it emerged is not a model at all, and has only ever had one walk-on role on Generations.

Of course, the Dos Santos-Thamana story is the perfect storm. It has everything: racial parallelism (how reassuring), the opportunity for some light-hearted sexism (models are stupid), and a legitimate excuse to print some attractive accompanying photos (“she might be racist but I’d totally do her”). 

But ultimately this is not a story about two South African racists. How could that possibly be newsworthy in as fractured a country as South Africa? It is a story about Twitter, and the way the medium functions like an echo-chamber, sending strident voices endlessly circling and bouncing back. Twitter and Facebook are perfect breeding grounds for these stories because they allow them to circulate fast, escalate even more rapidly, and invoke public outrage. It is the latter that particularly gives them wings: these stories develop an unstoppable momentum once the Twitterati start  competing with each other to display even more righteous anger than the next. You may hate racism, but I abhor racism! You might think racists should be silenced, but I think they should be ritually disembowelled in public! Ergo, I win!

But letting Twitter vigilantism determine our news agendas seems misplaced, to say the least. Twitter, while being often used for serious and worthy purposes, is also an insular, self-regulating system with its own arcane codes and protocols, gatekeepers and hierarchies, insiders and outsiders. It is at its best when it breaks news. It’s at its worst when it makes news. DM


  • Rebecca Davis
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Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

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