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Twitter, we just can’t quit you

For journalists and other non-trolls, navigating Twitter can be like walking in flip-flops through a well-used dog park. Even if you don’t step in anything, it’s a tricky and odious journey that leaves you slightly nauseous. And exhausted.

So we really don’t need to wonder why journalists on Twitter, like New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, decide to take a hike. Thrush announced this week he was deleting his account, then wisely (and paradoxically) considered the advice of some of his Twitter followers and rendered it dormant instead.

We can understand, and maybe envy, the relief that must wash over Twitter-quitters as they walk away from the anonymous abuse flung at them in 140 characters and 15MB memes. 

Thrush covers the White House, where the press corps since 2016 has become an increasingly rich target for trolls and incessant battering by partisans. Several writers around the globe have sworn off Twitter: Jonathan Weisman, Owen Jones, Bret Stephens, Alisyn Camerota, Chris Kenny, Lindy West, Annie Lowrey, Abe Riesman and more who didn’t actually write about it.

Other journalists are reluctant-though-rather-prolific Twitter users, comparing it to pornography, cigarette smoking and crack addiction. And some are just plain reluctant, throwing an occasional tweet into the fire and then fleeing before they witness its incineration.

“Being online is really important, even if you don’t want to be…You’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it.”

No matter what the reason, or whether Thrush or others truly abandon the platform forever, it raises potentially serious questions.

Could Thrush, certainly a respected reporter with many admirers in the news community, help catalyze a journalistic exodus from Twitter?  Will journalists, some of whom already are unwilling to engage in Twitter conversations, feel even more justified in backing away?

And if that happens, what happens to the piles of misinformation growing like mold throughout the platform?

An American Press Institute study in 2015 found that false information on Twitter overpowers efforts to correct it by a ratio of at least 3 to 1. More than two years and one presidential election later, that gap surely has widened.

After Hurricane Sandy, researchers identified more than 10,000 tweets containing fake images of the devastation. Thousands of Twitter users retweeted those images. Another study demonstrates that the more a false story is retweeted, the more it becomes true in the mind of social media user.

In the category of potentially good news, however, a University of Washington study last year found that journalists tweeting from verified accounts can help stop the proliferation of false information on Twitter.

“Being online is really important, even if you don’t want to be,” Kate Starbird, one of the study’s authors, said in an interview with Geekwire. “Avoiding social media channels because you don’t want to be confronted with misinformation is a real danger for an organization. You’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it.”

A new study released this week also shows the power of a journalist’s voice when “adjudicating” fact and fiction.

Flickr Creative Commons

Perhaps this is the reason that, Gandhi-like, Twitter itself has adopted a policy of  “the universe will take care of itself” for fighting misinformation.

“Twitter’s open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information…We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth,” says Twitter vice president Colin Crowell.  “Journalists, experts and engaged citizens Tweet side-by-side correcting and challenging public discourse in seconds. These vital interactions happen on Twitter every day.”

The thing is, those “vital interactions” by journalists aren’t happening as much as Twitter might like to think. According to early results of a forthcoming study supported by API and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, most newsrooms don’t consistently take the time to correct misinformation on social media.

Consider the fact that Twitter has awarded journalists more verified accounts than just about any other type of professional. Why? Could it be that Twitter, like Facebook, has strategically enlisted journalists to do the fake-news heavy lifting? After all, managing more than 300 million accounts — including a bunch of very busy bots — is tough work for a company with a market cap of $13 billion.

For that and other reasons, it’s tempting to adopt a social media isolationism policy, leaving Twitter and its trolls and liars to live in their own nasty Rikers Island dog park and assume they won’t escape.

Or should journalists — who are uniquely situated by mission and training — continue to respond to rampant misinformation on social media with professionally vetted news and facts?

To paraphrase a phrase uttered by either a Jewish philosopher, President John F. Kennedy or Emma Watson: “If not journalists, who? If not now, when?”

Ah, Twitter, it’s hard to quit you.

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