Michael S. Rosenwald is an enterprise reporter on the local staff of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @mikerosenwald.
The Twitter Police carry retweets in their holsters. They stake out conferences, surveil cable news shows and microscopically examine 140-character bursts. They are sworn officers of cyberspace, having taken the following oath:
“I, [@TwitterHandle], do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Internet against all forms of idiocy and moral defects, real and imagined; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to hashtags; that I take this obligation freely; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the WiFi hotspot I am about to enter.”
With a limitless cache of outrage, officers use Twitter streams as both crime scenes and interrogation rooms, apprehending subjects for things they say online and off. They are old-fashioned, almost Mayberry-like, in their statutes — be nice, be fair, don’t talk without thinking, they warn — but their use of force is out of whack with the misdeeds they avenge.
I worry that, pretty soon, no one will have the guts to jaywalk anymore.
The news and entertainment media are a frequent target of the Twitter Police, as well as willing publicists of its manhunts. Recent apprehensions include “Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, busted for an unfunny tweet suggesting that the recent Oklahoma tornado was targeting conservatives. Media critic Howard Kurtz felt the wrath of the Twitter Police when he made a major goof, in writing and on video, on the story of NBA player Jason Collins coming out as gay. Kurtz lost his Daily Beast job shortly thereafter (though he says the move was already in the works) and had to endure a show trial on his CNN Sunday program, “Reliable Sources.”
And when CNN’s John King reported that a “dark-skinned” individual had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing — no “dark-skinned” person was in custody then or now — the Twitter Police were relentless. Big mistake, sure. But one meriting a brutal flogging with little regard for King’s prouder moments in journalism?
The Twitter Police don’t care. “BREAKING: ‘Dark-skinned’ suspect identifies @CNN reporter as ‘thick-headed,’ ”@daddy_san wrote. Replied @soniafaleiro: “CNN’s so called finest should just give up the pretense and apply for Dancing with the Stars.”
In the pre-social-network age, controversies were curated by the mass media, then disseminated to the rest of us. Now, the Twitter Police stir up the daily outrage — real, exaggerated or just plain false — which is picked up by Twitter-monitoring reporters who believe that the skirmishes there reflect the deep concerns of the American people, even though 84 percent of adult U.S. Internet users don’t use the service, according to the Pew Research Center.
And that can make for a swift — and public — perp walk from apprehension to prosecution to punishment to punch line. CNN executives discovered that when the network became President Obama’s bull’s-eye at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in April. “I know CNN has taken some knocks lately,” Obama said, “but the fact is I admire their commitment to cover all sides of a story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate.”
The sociologists, behavioral scientists and economists who study this stuff tend to take the profound but not-so-surprising view that such herd mentality online is simply the relocation of behavior that homo sapiens has been displaying since the hunter-gatherer days, when small groups of people banded together to protect tribes against large animals.
“We have tended to organize ourselves in such a way where we come to have shared values, and we jointly will work to prevent people from violating those values,” said James Fowler, a University of California at San Diego political scientist and co-author of “Connected.” “I tell people all the time that we have the same brain we had before Facebook, before Twitter. It’s unreasonable to think that our behavior will change.”
But what has changed, of course, is the scale and speed of such behavior, as well as the costs of taking action. Back when remote controls were connected to TVs via cords, if a talking head said something stupid, the chatter and fist-waving of viewers usually stayed within their immediate social groups. To take action, you had to drive to the grocery store, buy some cardboard and markers, drive home, think of a compelling slogan, make a sign, drive to the network’s headquarters, stand out in the rain, catch a cold and miss three days of work.
Now @daddy_san and countless other Twitter cops can instantaneously trash CNN’s King over his reporting, and then watch the retweets and replies pile up, get embedded in stories by other media outlets and multiply the outrage.
“I respond off an internal moral compass. If it’s inherently wrong and I feel so very deeply, I call it out,” said @daddy_san, who is 33 but declined to have his name published. (Another important tool of the Twitter Police is undercover operations.) “I can ping John King directly to tell him he was a colossal idiot, and chances are, he’ll see it. He may choose not to respond or dismiss me as a troll, but he’ll see it. Awareness is the first step.”
And it’s not just nameless @daddy_sans of the Twitterverse that take part in big-time busts. After King’s errant report, PBS NewsHour host Gwen Ifill tweeted this: “Disturbing that it’s OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect only as ‘a dark-skinned individual.’ ” She became a Twitter cop and then, after generating more than 800 retweets, a Twitter Police victim. “The hounds of Twitter hell were unleashed,” she wrote on her blog, saying “conspiracy theorists” on the right and left interpreted her comment as being about race, when in fact, “I was talking about journalism.”
Victims of the Twitter Police think that officers tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Consider one early offender, former CNN analyst Roland Martin, whose tweets during the 2012 Super Bowl sent SWAT teams to @rolandsmartin, decrying him as homophobic. Martin still maintains that his tweets — saying that “real bruhs” shouldn’t like a David Beckham underwear commercial and that “if a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped” about the ad, “smack the ish out of him!” — were part of his long tradition of soccer-bashing, not gay-bashing.
“Everyone out there wants to be able to play gotcha,” said Martin, who was suspended by CNN for the remarks. “You can say something and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, people go crazy.”
He breaks the Twitter Police into two divisions — the “lone wolves” who operate on their own, and groups that speak for and galvanize their communities. Both were active in his takedown. Andy Szekeres, described on his Twitter page as a “raiser of millions of dollars for #LGBT and progressive causes,” tweeted: “Dear @cnn its time to fire @rolandsmartin for his homophobic comments and his awful political analysis he tarnishes the CNN image. #FAIL.”
GLAAD also went after Martin, digging up past tweets and comments that the organization said revealed a pattern of homophobia. (GLAAD also later condemned “several members of the LGBT community” who it said “used racial epithets and race-based insults” toward Martin, who is African American.)
“The Twitter Police is about walking into a conversation that is already going on and then making a judgement without even considering what was taking place before they arrived,” Martin said. “They can take something that has a completely opposite meaning and change it to fit their narrative.”
Social scientists call this “context collapse.” A joke that you make among friends would not be understood if you made the same joke among, well, everyone else. And even when you say things to a group of like-minded people — say, at an obscure conference where attendees might be tweeting or taking video — you can no longer assume that the thought will stay in that context. Ask Mitt Romney, whose “47 percent” comment in front of a group of donors wasn’t received the same way by non-donors.
“We used to be able to speak in a room with people that we felt we were on the same page with and feel confident what we said would never leave that group,” said Duncan Watts, who studies Internet behavior for Microsoft Research. Now statements frequently leave the group, Watts said, “and you might be surprised to find people outside don’t feel the same way.”
This happened recently to Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who suggested at an investment conference that British economist John Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality affected his economic theories. News outlets and Twitter users picked up on Ferguson’s remarks and excoriated him, and then he issued a mea culpa, tweeting, “I apologize deeply and unreservedly for stupid and tactless remarks about Keynes.” But Ferguson also blasted his online detractors, writing in the Harvard Crimson that “for the self-appointed inquisitors of internet, it is always easier to accuse than seriously to inquire.” His apology, Ferguson wrote, “did not suffice for some critics, who insisted that I was guilty not just of stupidity but also of homophobia.”
Unlike cops in the offline world, the Twitter Police are enforcing laws of their own making, with procedures they have authorized for themselves. But like street cops, the Twitter Police can be wrong.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, Reddit and Twitter users floated Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student, as a suspect. His name became a trending topic on Twitter, and a Facebook page set up to help find him was trashed with nasty messages. His body was found in a river a few days after authorities identified the real suspects, and police said it had been there for some time.
The Twitter Police do not have an official spokesman, but @JeremyPond seemed to speak for many when he tweeted, “Worldwide apologies going out to Sunil Tripathi and his family, says everyone. #Watertown.” (Alas, his tweet did not go viral.)
What Twitter Police victims and researchers such as Watts fear most about the long arm of the Internet law is a sort of pre-crime unit — think of the movie “Minority Report” — prompting talkers and tweeters to censor themselves for fear of being busted seconds later. Though the Twitter Police quickly move on to the next crime scene, criminal records are never expunged online.
Such a world threatens to turn interesting, provocative people — those most likely to find their accounts hounded should they say something controversial — into guarded politicians, saying a lot while meaning nothing. I’ve even found myself thinking long and hard before hitting the “tweet” button and sending edgy ideas into the ether, or raising them in public forums where Twitter cops might lurk.
“You don’t want social media to lose its spontaneity, to lose its sense of humor because a bunch of people choose to be super-sensitive,” Martin said. “Now all of a sudden life becomes bland, watered down, careful. That wouldn’t be a good result.”