Jeff Bezos’ highly personal blog post last night was a bombshell in many ways: it served as a middle finger to blackmailing bullies, it accused one of America’s biggest tabloids of extortion, and it escalated his conflict with the country’s president. But what stood out to me, precisely by virtue of it not being noticed or widely recognized, was the role that Twitter played in that explosive news moment. If Bezos dropped a bomb, it was Twitter that sparked and catalyzed the explosion.
Anyone looking at Twitter as a typical social media platform will not be impressed by it. The company just reported 126 million daily active users, and although its financials have looked solid, it lost 10 percent of its stock value due to projections of increased expenses. Wall Street and news people clearly value different things because in the business of news gathering and curation, dissemination and even creation, Twitter is without peer. That’s because Twitter is the place where the people who write the news get their news.
The anatomy of the Bezos disclosure was simple. He chose Medium as the receptacle of his thoughts — perhaps as a neutral alternative to writing in The Washington Post, which he owns — but the path that everyone followed to get to Medium was via his tweet. No journalist was casually browsing Medium’s “Combative Blog Posts from Multibillionaires” section and accidentally stumbled upon it. No one could even have been sure it was Bezos just by looking at the blog post in isolation. Twitter was both the trigger of awareness for the post’s existence and the first step of verification for its legitimacy.
It’s the blue check mark next to Bezos’ tweet that gave news outlets, including The Verge, the confidence to treat the words on Medium as his. Proper journalistic verification always follows, but the news became news the moment Mr. Bezos hit “tweet,” not before or after.
Most reports now don’t even mention the tweet as an instrumental element in obtaining and confirming the news. And that’s the fundamentally new and interesting thing to me: Twitter has blended in with all of the other infrastructure of the web that we take for granted. It’s the Google search, Google Reader (RIP), and sometimes Wikipedia for journalists and other news addicts. We use tweets as jumping-off points just as we use URLs, following them as conduits en route to the story. That’s usually just fine by the tweeters, who are playing their own performative game of trying to attract as many retweets and likes as possible, whether to demonstrate expertise in a certain field or to sate baser desires for validation.
When a high-profile figure has something incendiary to say, it’s said on Twitter
What’s increasingly happening with high-profile figures like Bezos is that we find the news contained within the tweet itself. Donald Trump has been known to use the service to declare changes in US international policy — “it’s time for our troops to come back home” — before he even consults with the relevant officials, while Elon Musk’s infamous “funding secured” tweet got him sued by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Is there a problem with Twitter having such a disproportionate influence on the news-gathering process in the US and most other Western democracies? Of course. Unlike Wikipedia, Twitter is a profit-seeking entity, and Facebook has shown how badly astray a company can go in the pursuit of monetizable user information. Like Facebook, Twitter is run mostly by a single individual, CEO Jack Dorsey, who speaks earnestly but leaves chronic issues of racism, intolerance, bullying, and abuse to fester on his platform. He also takes a highly permissive interpretation of the public interest with respect to President Trump’s tweets, even when they incite violence and xenophobia.
More than anything, the danger of Twitter’s quietly attained preeminence in news is that we are growing too reliant on it. Twitter’s verification system works well enough to be trusted, but the moment we decide to trust it, especially with volatile figures like Musk and Trump, we run the risk of being badly misled should major accounts get hijacked. (Dorsey’s own account has been hacked in the past.) And the trouble with the current “I want it five minutes ago” pace of breaking news coverage is that the journalist who takes the time to properly verify it is also the one who files “late.” That’s not strictly Twitter’s fault, to be fair, but the immediacy and fluidity of the service does mean that misinformation on it can spread in huge waves before any confirmed and verified reporting can be published elsewhere.
The more invisible Twitter starts to appear, the more intrinsic it becomes
I choose to be optimistic about Twitter because, in spite of all its warts and flaws, it has repeatedly shown itself to be a useful and innovative communication tool. Not so much courtesy of Twitter Inc. itself, but in the ways that people have used it, whether in popularizing the # topic and @ mention or in the amorphous global conversations that take place on the service every day. Yes, it plays host to bad and malevolent actors, but Twitter also helps amplify voices like that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who doesn’t have to water down her progressive political message to get it out to a wide audience.
The Jeff Bezos blog publication may seem tangential to Twitter’s operation, but I think it underlines the substantial influence and growing instrumental importance of the platform. The more invisible Twitter starts to appear, the more intrinsic it becomes. If I were to tell you right now that Kanye West or Donald Trump said something incendiary in the time you’ve been reading this article, Twitter would be the first place you’d look for it. That’s Twitter’s essential power, which transcends financial statements and goes to the heart of how we now discover, consume, and interact with news.