Twitter: The unreliable narrator

Twitter has revolutionised the profession of journalism, assuring the public easy access to different points of view.


Hilary Stauffer November 20, 2013
The writer is an international lawyer who has worked on human rights and humanitarian law projects in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa

When Twitter made its IPO in early November, the mad scramble from investors sent the stock price sharply upwards in the first 24 hours, proving that the company is as popular with shareholders as it is with social media enthusiasts.

Financial analysts are now writing a never-ending series of ‘pro’ and ‘con’ articles about the company: Twitter has either cemented its place in the tech firmament or is a passing fad that will soon be passe, depending on the author’s point of view. But outside the relatively insular world of financial journalism, Twitter seems more relevant than ever.

Its influence on two major current events playing out across our computer monitors and mobile phone screens cannot be underestimated — although this influence is not necessarily benevolent. First up: Obamacare. President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement that was theoretically going to bring universal healthcare to the uninsured masses has had an uninspiring debut. The website that was supposed to make it painless to sign up for an insurance plan crashed, and the millions of young, healthy web-savvy people that were supposed to fill out the ranks of the newly insured (to counterbalance the older, sicker people who the insurers are also mandated to cover) have proven elusive. Enrolment numbers are low, and don’t look to be increasing anytime soon.

Next: Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines one day after Twitter’s IPO. A massive, deadly storm, the typhoon made landfall in a rural part of the country, leaving millions homeless and millions more displaced. It is estimated that up to 10,000 have died, but officials say they may never know the full death toll. Pictures of the abject despair of the survivors, desperately waiting for aid to arrive, have become constant across all social media platforms, along with frenzied descriptions of the ‘failures’ of the Philippines government, the aid agencies, and the international community to effectively respond to the tragedy.

What these disparate events have in common is that the mere existence of Twitter has made forming a rational response to them exponentially more difficult. Twitter plays into society’s need for immediate gratification, which is fine, perhaps, with regards to celebrity gossip. But when dealing with the implementation of a massive government insurance programme or effective disaster relief, reporting a constant stream of minutiae can be distinctly unhelpful.

Obamacare is a mammoth undertaking with thousands of moving parts that will affect millions of people. Its unveiling has been far from artful, and several of the programme’s more infamous missteps could perhaps, have been avoided with more careful planning and a more realistic deadline. But it was always going to take a while for all the pieces to fall together and start working in concert with each other. There is no practical way to evaluate its efficacy until several months have passed. No Twitter feed, no matter how witty, can provide accurate analytics.

As to Typhoon Haiyan, social media can be very helpful, as it provides donors with access to continuously updated information and more outlets through which to donate. But Twitter is not a good arbiter of what a successful disaster relief operation looks like. The government of the Philippines, undoubtedly, could have prepared better for the storm’s impact. However, some facts are indisputable: the Philippines is an archipelago, meaning any aid that arrives must come by air or sea. The airport in one of the hardest-hit areas, Tacloban, was heavily damaged by the storm, reducing the number of flights that could land. Moreover, the logistics of aid operations aren’t straightforward: supplies may be stockpiled on an army base far from the latest natural disaster; exceptional permission to traverse the airspace or territorial waters of unfriendly countries may need to be negotiated; and visas for aid workers may need to be arranged. All this while trying to get donor countries to pledge financial support in what is already a very crowded humanitarian landscape. The Twitterati’s collective need to emphasise those areas where it has arbitrarily decided the delivery of aid is falling short doesn’t incentivise overburdened UN agencies to work harder. It just adds an additional layer of unconstructive hyperbole to an already difficult situation.

Twitter has revolutionised the profession of journalism, assuring the public easy access to points of view other than their own and real time updates to important events as they unfold. This is unreservedly a good thing. But we have to become more discerning news connoisseurs, and require our correspondents to do something more than constantly comment in 140 characters or less.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2013.

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