The problem when social media shares news about social media

Posted on February 14, 2018

 

The rise of social media, especially Twitter, has opened up a whole goldmine of potential content for journalists, who can instantly find what people are talking about and the range of opinions they are expressing on it.

This is potentially a positive thing, but it can also lead journalists to become a little prone to exaggerating the viewpoints of Twitter users, and overstating their significance. At worst, it can create a form of very lazy journalism where reporters take a handful of opinions from social media users and present them as some sort of vox populi on a given subject.

This week, a number of news stories have picked up on a controversial scene from the newly released animated ‘Peter Rabbit’ film, where a character with a blackberry allergy is pelted with the fruit. Some people on Twitter have had their say, with the hashtag #BoycottPeterRabbit not exactly trending, but being used in a few tweets by people who didn’t like the scene, or who have read about it and formed an opinion.

Some articles, like this one from Sky News, have gone on to claim that the film is “facing a boycott” over the scene, using some of these #BoycottPeterRabbit tweets to make the point.

Clearly, the scene has upset one of two people, and the above Twitter users are more than entitled to exercise their right to make their viewpoints known. At the same time though, who are they, and why are their views important? Is Sky News creating a bit of a storm in a teacup here by selecting a few tweets from people we don’t know and using them to present a story about “calls to boycott” a film?

‘Julia B’ (@PartyVIP101) is the first person whose tweet is referenced in the article, but she has a grand total of 35 followers at the time of writing. Again, that shouldn’t discredit her views, but is she really a major online influencer?

It doesn’t end there though – the news story starts getting shared on social media, so then we get social media reactions to social media reactions. On Facebook, the Sky News story has had hundreds of shares and over a thousand comments. People love talking about political correctness, and this leads to unhelpful and unfunny comments like “Was it because the berries were black?” All of a sudden, everyone is crawling over each other to get sarcastic comments in about racial equality, sexism, gay rights and anything else they’re not entirely comfortable with. This shows how social media comments can often spawn a cycle of social media reactions that gets blown out of all proportion – a cycle to which I am now contributing.

Let’s take a step back here – the ‘story’, if there is one, is that a few people didn’t like that part of the film and are trying to encourage others not to go. That’s it!

Interestingly, the one actual authority mentioned in the Sky News piece (almost as an afterthought) is the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which has written an open letter to Sony Pictures about the film. The letter does not call for a boycott of the film, it simply calls for Sony to reflect on the way it treats matters like allergies and welcomes discussion.

This is what we need – communication and dialogue. We should be able to talk about films and the parts we did and didn’t like without veering to extremes. My view when I read about the scene was that it sounded a bit ‘real’ for an animated kids’ film, but I would reserve judgment until I saw the scene in the wider context of the film.

There are plenty of otherwise good films where there is the odd scene that doesn’t sit too well with me. A minor spoiler alert needed here, but I’m surprised how little is said about ‘Frozen’ ending with Anna punching Prince Hans in the face. An argument could be made about how suitably that deals with the fact that 40% of domestic violence victims are men, and there is ongoing discussion about how well they are served by the system. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film or would advise others not to watch it – it’s just one particular part I would change.

My concern with Twitter is that, even with the new 280-character limit, the format is too curt and punchy to allow for rational and sensible discussion. Instead, complex matters get distilled into extreme, direct commands like #BoycottPeterRabbit. The media then pick up on these tweets, they get fed back into social media, and what we get is not a true reflection of the situation.

How do we solve this problem? Read stories, examine them and form your own conclusion. And if you can’t say what you need to say in 280-characters, don’t say it on Twitter at all.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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