Julia Marcus: I’m fairly new to Twitter but it’s felt to me that the people who are amplified in news media as experts are often the people who have large followings on Twitter, which creates this feedback loop that can build a false sense of consensus. And that makes it very difficult to put forth alternative perspectives. It’s hard to imagine how the pandemic would’ve played out without social media but it feels to me that social media contributed to an unhelpful polarization of the discussion.
Charlie Warzel: I’ve heard public health people say that before everyone flocked to social media a lot of these scientific discussions were happening on private listservs or messageboards and in those spaces there was room for disagreement or to express a greater spectrum of doubt. It was a safe space. And then the discussion moved into the public and it was distorted. Is that true in your experience?
JM: Twitter rewards certainty. How often do you see a tweet go viral when somebody is unsure about something? And it’s an addictive process. Certainty is rewarded, high emotion is rewarded, especially anger and fear, and it’s a self-perpetuating phenomenon. When the scientific discourse largely moves onto social media it begins to degrade. I think it moved to social media because it was the easiest way to get the word out, and because so many scientists were working at home and social media provided a forum for conversations in their fields. But sometimes it has felt more like a middle school cafeteria than a scientific discussion.
Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we … don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.
In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.
Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims.
In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.
Twitter has absolutely killed journalism. Killed it stone dead. And there’s not one journalist in a hundred who has brains enough to realize it.