The Rule of 140

Embedded Tweets and "People are Saying"

Ranjan here. Today I’m talking about Aquaman, how news sources embed tweets, and our collective lack of individual original thought.

Whenever I'm watching some big sports match, TV show event (like Game of Thrones), political debate, or any other major cultural occurrence, and I feel like I notice something curious or a bit off, or if I even have some tiny idea that strikes me, I’ll often end up at Twitter search. Unfailingly, there will have already been a number of people tweeting my exact thought.

It can be fairly boring stuff - like in the recent USA-Mexico Gold Cup final, I was annoyed by the amount of injury time awarded so I searched “3 minutes”:

It’s usually something trivial or mundane; like whether some celebrity looks chubbier than normal (sorry) or if someone's microphone volume is off at a political debate, or if there was a Starbucks mug in Westeros, but invariably, others were thinking, and posting, about the same thing.

I think I search these things for affirmation, but I always find confirmation that others are thinking the same thing. It happens so often, I’ve dubbed it the Rule of 140 (as an homage to Rule 34, along with the original Twitter character count):

There are no original thoughts around a shared cultural experience (political, entertainment, sports, news). Every idea or observations that passes through your head has not only been thought of by a number of other people, it's also been posted on social media. The hive mind is always one step ahead.

Just try it next time you're watching something. Seriously, it's kind of fun.

The Art of Embedding

The practice of embedding tweets has become an increasingly widespread part of writing articles. One of the reasons I love Substack, is how easily it allows you to embed a tweet in a newsletter (in Mailchimp and other email creation tools, this is painful).

Tweets certainly matter. It's how the President and any number of other world and business leaders communicate. There are hundreds of thousands of words published each day analyzing the content of words tweeted. For the past week, many of us have spent more time than we’d like debating the words of a certain tweet.

But in those cases, the source and impact of the tweet are themselves the story. There is another genre of using tweets in articles that is a bit quieter and, in my opinion, problematic. The one where writers use a tweet to replace what would've previously required finding a person to cite. Instead of having to find out a subject matter expert or relevant source, they can simply find a tweet. The one where a writer uses a tweet to represent some current "public opinion" or trending “belief”.

Jason Momoa, meet The Margins

You have the harmless stuff like Jason Momoa shaved his beard and people are freaking out!

Here, CNN informs us that "people" are reacting strongly to Momoa shaving off his beard by embedding four tweets. It’s a nice, simple story. It’s kind of true, I am a little freaked out that Khal Drogo shaved his badass beard. Momoa is doing this as part of some sponsored content effort to promote his new line of canned water (isn’t that as 2019 as it gets?), and the whole thing is commercial and weird enough to make the embedded tweets seem quite innocuous. But the author is still creating a “reality” off of a few social posts in a lazy journalistic manner. It’s still CNN.

Let's continue on the Jason Momoa theme. You may have seen he was recently fat-shamed. More accurately, there were a few comments on an Us Weekly Instagram post that he wasn’t as ripped as normal.

This naturally led to hundreds of articles covering the topic of fat-shaming, a NY Post deep dive into Dad-Bods, and of course, Business Insider blessed us with, "Jason Momoa is set to guest star on 'The Simpsons,' and his animated character looks ripped like him. Experts share what it takes to make a six pack 'pop.'"

Most these articles simply embed the back-and-forth’s on Twitter. The NY Post piece managed to actually write out full sentences, addressing @cultofdusty1 as a person:

We’ve started getting into the more emotional, personal stuff. By citing a few commenters and twitter posts, we can instantly generate a widespread debate on the topic of fat-shaming.

Chris Pratt, meet The Margins

Let’s make the jump from fat-shaming to white supremacy, with the story Chris Pratt criticised for ‘white supremacist’ T-shirt’. The author of this piece, Yahoo Movies UK (seriously, that's the listed author), embeds three tweets to inform us that 'people' are criticizing Chris Pratt for wearing a Dont Tread on Me Flag t-shirt, which apparently is a symbol used by white supremacist groups.

This is where the practice starts getting a bit more dangerous. We’ve already brought body complexes and gender into the equation. Now authors are working to bring racial animus in, spurred on by a small collection of tweets that don’t even quite say what the headline says they do. You see how easy it is for a news source to stoke a controversy with an incredibly low amount of effort. Just paste in the tweets, publish to your website, and you suddenly have people either wondering if they can watch the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and others ranting about if Hollywood has gotten too liberal and soft.

I’m going to now embed a tweet of a well-known journalist expressing a similar sentiment as this post. I will stand by this source as a reputable one and an expert in this field:

Also, a note: Since I first copied this article, I just went back and saw this incredible correction:

Update: This article was updated on 17 July with the initial headline, ’Chris Pratt criticised for ‘white supremacist’ T-shirt’ being amended to ‘Chris Pratt criticised for T-shirt choice.' References to White Supremacism in this article have been removed.

Arbitrage

If you believe in the The Rule of 140 as I do, it means you can find any thought related to any event posted by someone, on some social media platform. I tend to view things in economic terms, and embedding tweets or social media comments is an arbitrage opportunity to exploit.

A publisher can make any argument, and corroborate it with a few simple embedded tweets and a headline that includes "people are saying". The cost of production is so low, you can create a high volume of articles like this and something is bound to catch fire. Throw on a few Taboola modules and you’re in business. It captures every distorted economic incentive that plagues the current media ecosystem. It’s the proverbial free money.

The Russians

It would be one thing if it were simply relegated to the confines of Yahoo Movies and CNN's Entertainment section. But it’s widespread and in major media outlets. And of significantly greater consequence, it’s an area that is a prime target for disinformation campaigns, specifically of the Russian variety. Almost every major media outlet was found to have published articles that used tweets from Russian disinformation accounts.

A Feb 2018 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that:

We searched the content of 33 major American news outlets for references to the 100 most-retweeted accounts among those Twitter identified as controlled by the IRA, from the beginning of 2015 through September 2017. We found at least one tweet from an IRA account embedded in 32 of the 33 outlets—a total of 116 articles—including in articles published by institutions with longstanding reputations, like The Washington Post, NPR, and the Detroit Free Press, as well as in more recent, digitally native outlets such as BuzzFeed, Salon, and Mic (the outlet without IRA-linked tweets was Vice).

There's another good analysis from Recode + Meltwater on the subject that dives further into just how widespread this problem was. It’s the perfect disinformation target — if you know people are seeking out confirmatory tweets and will publish them with no due diligence, then you make sure to create them. Major media outlets have repeatedly cited Russian disinformation account tweets as examples of existing American sentiment.

The screenshot below is taken from a Columbia Journalism Review analysis of the U of Wisconsin studyK

People are saying

Jason Momoa's abs and Chris Pratt's racial sensitivities are one thing. Russian electoral disinformation seeping into mainstream journalistic publications is a much bigger thing. But a more pernicious effect of this practice is the normalization of the "people are saying" discourse.

I see it in regular conversation. Friends and family loosely cite their social media feeds as “people are saying”. It usually revolves around some controversial viewpoint or topic, and it’s become the norm in published media as well. We’ve moved from a publishing standard where we expect "this specific person, who has this background, relevance and expertise, said this" to simply "people are saying".

This really matters, because we all know who is the king of this:

Following the country’s most deadly mass shooting, Donald Trump was asked to explain what he meant when he said President Obama either does not understand radicalized Muslim terrorists or “he gets it better than anybody understands.”

“Well,” Trump said on the “Today Show” Monday morning, “there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn’t want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing, but there are many people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. He doesn’t want to see what’s really happening. And that could be.”

In other words, Trump was not directly saying that he believes the president sympathizes with the terrorist who killed at least 49 people in an Orlando nightclub. He was implying that a lot of people are saying that.

Thanks to the Rule of 140, anyone can justify any line of thinking. Any strain of conspiracy thinking, or any slightly controversial viewpoint, can be presented as conventional wisdom. To anyone reading on this sweltering weekend in the Northeast U.S, stay cool, and stay conscious of how you talk and write about what you’re reading on social media.


What I’m Reading

Why did we wait so long for the bicycle? - This history of the bicycle was a fascinating historical look at the innovations that made the two-wheeler possible, and also the roadblocks that made it take so long to invent:

The bicycle, as we know it today, was not invented until the late 1800s. Yet it was a simple mechanical invention. It would seem to require no brilliant inventive insight, and certainly no scientific background.

Why, then, wasn’t it invented much earlier?

Dogs on treadmills: Publishers are finding LinkedIn isn’t just for business and careers - This section usually contains inspiring articles, but I’m going to include one that’s the opposite. Those who know me well are familiar with my view that LinkedIn’s newsfeed is the single biggeest missed opportunity in building a healthy information ecosystem. It’s not gonna get better.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the logical conclusion of all algorithmic media:

 Cheddar may have started out as a business news outlet, but it’s used its LinkedIn page to share videos on dogs racing on treadmills and a man getting a butterfly removed from his ear. Condé Nast’s Wired has posted articles about eating in space and male birth control. Meanwhile, USA Today has recently shared stories about how to paint your homeStarbucks’ new Tie Dye Frappuccino and weird products to buy on Amazon. About a year ago, USA Today revamped its LinkedIn strategy to focus on posting stories or videos from its money and tech but about six months into the process discovered that they didn’t have to be so limited.

“We reanalyzed our strategy and noticed the stories that did best on LinkedIn were the ones focused on the consumer or ‘news you can use.’ We haven’t increased staffing at all, but we have focused on improving communication from editors across multiple sections.