Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Twitter Confusion

In the last few days I've noticed an annoying trend on Twitter. First consider this tweet (the one that Ram Ramgopal deleted):
The context here is that after Trump fired Comey, several media outlets were reporting that Comey had recently asked the DOJ (specifically Rosenstein) for additional money and/or resources for the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that this took place. Ramgopal's original tweet seemed (to some readers) to imply that Sanders was playing word games, denying that Comey asked for additional money but later admitting that he asked for additional resources. Gotcha! That of course would be absurd:
But as you can see from the Ramgopal tweet quoted above, this was all a misunderstanding. Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that Comey had asked for money or resources, and this was the import of the (inelegant) tweet that cause so much confusion. (I should note that Barro quickly tweeted a correction when this became clear.)

This is the familiar problem summed up in the saying attributed to Mark Twain, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." (Of course in this case there was no lie, just a poorly written tweet.) A lot of people saw riffs on Ramgopal's original tweet and drew conclusions from it before the corrections had made their way through Twitter. And of course, some people (maybe a majority of people who saw the original tweet) never saw a correction or understood that it had been retracted.

This problem is exacerbated by the architecture of Twitter, which (understandably) does not allow tweets to be modified. Once a tweet is published, it can only be deleted. But Twitter's fragmentary, centrifugal nature means that the audience for one tweet is likely to be very different from the audience for a later tweet that clarifies or corrects the earlier one.

Here is another example:
The context here is that Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Leader in the House, was commenting on Trump's decision to fire Comey. Of course, needless to say, members of Congress do not serve at the pleasure of the President, and it would be outrageous to suggest otherwise. Twitter was outraged.

But really, there would be no logical reason for a congressman to say something like that. Even if you think the Congressional Republicans are too servile in relation to Trump, they have absolutely no motive to emphasize the point by engaging in self-caricature. And indeed:
Since it didn't embed properly, here is the spokesman's response:
In this case, I don't know if McCarthy misspoke, or if the original tweet failed to capture his words accurately, so I admit this is a more ambiguous example than the earlier one. However, for most practical purposes, it doesn't matter unless you think the original statement was a sort of revealing slip. Clearly McCarthy was never going to stand behind it as his official position.

Note that both Ramgopal and Marinucci did the right thing by tweeting correcting/clarifying tweets. Nevertheless, I'm confident that the waves made by their original tweets were substantially bigger than the waves made by the corrections.

I said that the problem was exacerbated by Twitter's architecture. But that architecture is likely here to stay, and I think the problem is also greatly exacerbated by people's credulity. Read the original Ramgopal tweet again. Does it clearly indicate that Sarah Huckabee Sanders is playing word games? Not to my eyes.

The second tweet is more conducive to a negative reading, and honestly I don't have a good explanation for how it came to exist. Could McCarthy have really said that while mentally putting himself into the shoes of a political appointee? That's not a sensible way to communicate. But then, it's hard to see how Marinucci could have mangled the quote so badly, if McCarthy said something like, "Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the President."

Still, it's important to be skeptical of these sorts of crazy tweets. You have to take into account the significant possibility that the tweet you are reading is not as clear as it might seem to you, or that it misrepresents what was actually said. And you should be especially careful not to be selectively credulous, disproportionately retweeting questionable tweets that support your own set of beliefs.

But of course if Twitter's architecture is likely to stay, human nature is far likelier to stay with us, and so I don't hold out much hope. I guess I'm left to make a simple point about Twitter etiquette. You shouldn't spread these sensational tweets until you know what you are doing, or unless you indicate your skepticism to your audience. (Of course by far the best way to do this is to quote the tweet and comment "Big... if true.") And you should exert gentle pressure on your friends to maintain the same standards.