Accuracy in Media

Are “mentions” on Twitter becoming as nasty as comments on blogs? A Twitter user with one of the biggest followings thinks so, and that’s almost why he almost committed “Twitticide” by deleting his account on the mini-blog site.

English actor, writer, comedian and author Stephen Fry described his contempt for blog comments and his related internal Twitter crisis in a speech at a London social-networking conference:

I don’t know about you but whenever I read a blog I do not let my eye drop below half the screen in case I accidentally hit the bit where the comments reside. Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the Internet those comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining.

Their resentment, their desire to be heard at the most vituperative level, at the most unpleasant and malevolent, genuinely ill-willed malevolent, level is terrifying, and I am very often simply not able to cope with that. Twitter is usually not like that… [but] I found that the @ mentions were just getting — I could see these comments that would just make me upset.

If you’ve spent any time reading blog comments, including those here on the Accuracy In Media site, it’s impossible to deny with a straight face that they don’t regularly devolve into the “stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures” that Fry has seen. But they also regularly rise to the level of intelligent and informed debate. Readers just require a strong desire to act as their own filters if they want to spend time there.

Mentions on Twitter, which appear anytime users insert the @ sign before a Twitter handle (@AccuracyInMedia, for example), have the potential to become just as vitriolic. The temptation to snipe, insult and smear is arguably even greater when you as limited to 140 characters, as is the case on Twitter.

But Twitter mentions also are a great tool for sending a message. In AIM’s case, we use the @ sign as a way to fight media bias by taking complaints directly to the journalists guilty of it.

We did so yesterday by urging Norah O’Donnell of MSNBC to correct the misinformation she spread on Twitter and on the air about her “gotcha” encounter with a teenaged Sarah Palin fan. We also organized a “tweetstorm” against Katie Couric earlier this year, and conservative chatter on Twitter forced both Playboy and Politico into retreat over a vulgar article that imagined rapings of conservative women.

The solution is for people in the “Twitterverse” to use the @ sign responsibly. We here at AIM certainly would hate to see journalists be subjected to so much immature vitriol that they abandon Twitter because that tiny, little @ sign is one of the best tools for holding them accountable when they cross the line of fair and balanced journalism.

Twitter is, as Fry described it recently, the Fifth Estate. In that sense, it shares something in common with the blogosphere, which I dubbed Estate 4.5 back in 2005 speech at the Heritage Foundation. “Twitter is to the public arena,” Fry said, “what the press itself was two hundred and fifty years ago — a new and potent force in democracy, a thorn in side of the established order of things.”

The established order of journalism needs a thorn in the side. We media watchdogs just need to exercise wisdom in deciding when, where and how to thrust it into their ribs.

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