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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Twitter Isn't Real

Social media only gives itself exactly the power over us that we allow it to have.

What if Twitter isn't real?

By that, I don't just mean Russian bots talking to other Russian bots, liberal satirists fooling gullible conservatives, and cynical opinion-mongers conjuring panics out of nothing. There's clearly a lot of literally fake news on Twitter, and it's a problem.

Notwithstanding these flaws — or perhaps because of them — Twitter is still taken seriously as a medium. It's supposed to be extraordinarily powerful and influential, able to make and break reputations at unprecedented speed.

But what if it isn't? What if Twitter is mostly a closed ecosystem, relevant only to and within itself? What if its ability to shape the real world is, as they say, greatly exaggerated?
Consider the case of comedian Kevin Hart, who was briefly tapped to host the Academy Awards. As soon as the announcement was made, the denizens of Twitter went to work unearthing bits from his comedy (of which his Twitter feed is surely an extension) that were less than complimentary toward gay men, to say the least. Within two days, Hart had stepped aside, claiming he didn't want to be a distraction from the awards ceremony. But the distraction hasn't abated. Instead, Hart's friends and colleagues are coming to his defense by pointing out that other ostensibly woke comedians engaged in similar sorts of humor and continue to do so.

Did the Academy do the right thing? If the "right thing" is to never give a platform to anyone who's ever said anything like Hart said, then the mistake was to ever have reached out to Hart in the first place. Backing down swiftly just makes it look like they didn't do their homework, and further erodes trust in their judgment; it's not like those homophobic jokes were any kind of secret, after all.

From the Academy's perspective, though, the "right thing" was probably just to avoid negative publicity that would weaken ratings for the event. But by that metric it's quite possible that they made the wrong call. I suspect there are more Kevin Hart fans who normally don't watch the awards who would tune in to see him than there are die-hard Oscar watchers who would tune out in protest of his presence. Moreover, it's easy to imagine folks in the Academy's PR department pulling their hair out now about the problem of how to replace Hart. If the next host isn't black, will Hart fans accuse the Academy of holding him to a racist double standard? But how will another black comedian feel about stepping into the spot over Hart's corpse?

So I have to wonder: What would have happened if the Academy had done nothing — or nearly nothing? What if they followed a PR strategy that presumed that, in the Twitter era, the baseline level of negative publicity is always going to be higher than it used to be — and that the presumption should be that the publicity has few real consequences in monetary terms. Firing off an angry tweet is the second-easiest thing in the world to do, the only thing easier being liking someone else's angry tweet. If that's all that's happening, then what's happening really isn't real.
How many other respectable institutions and individuals are in the same position? How many are stronger than they think and could weather the outrage cycle simply by saying: Twitter outrage isn't real outrage; Twitter shame isn't real shame. This medium only has power if we choose to believe it does. But we know who and what we are, and we're going to keep being who and what we are, and will trust our own good judgment to prevail not only in the fullness of time, but in time to keep us solvent.

I suspect we're going to find out. Because no institution can remain respectable if it doesn't respect itself. And how much self-respect can anyone have living in constant terror of a fickle and shallow digital mob?

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