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Is There Anything More Public Than Twitter?

Squawking Twitter birds

A man huddles in fear from a squawking flock of twitter birds. By Pete Simon on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

What are the ethics of publishing a tweet without permission? With millions of users, is everything we say on Twitter truly public? These are questions being asked in the wake of a controversy in which BuzzFeed republished a Twitter discussion on March 12, 2014 in which sexual assault survivor and Twitter user @SteenFox had asked women to discuss what they were wearing when they were assaulted. Although the women had given @SteenFox permission to retweet the tweets (and later, the Buzzfeed reporter too) some were still upset that BuzzFeed had republished them, sparking a discussion about the ethics of major publications further publicizing tweets.

While it's true that Twitter is public, over 400 million tweets are sent into the ether every day, with most users never expecting theirs could end up on the front page of the newspaper. And yet, publications are increasingly using Twitter users as sources, and tweets as content.

This is one thing when the subject is an uprising; while, say, a Turkish or Egyptian protester may not expect their tweets to show up in the New York Times, the tweets sent from Gezi Park or Tahrir Square are often intended for public, even foreign, consumption. A discussion about sexual assault, however, may feel more personal.

In response to the controversy, Gawker (which uses tweets regularly in its reporting) published a piece by Hamilton Nolan arguing that Twitter is public. In it, Nolan writes:

Because Twitter is public, and published on the internet, it is possible that someone will quote something that you said on Twitter in a news story. This is something that you implicitly accept by publishing something on Twitter, which is public. That is well within the rights of a “journalist,” as well as anyone who clicks the “Retweet” button on something that you published on Twitter. Just because you wish that someone would not quote something that you said in public does not mean that that person does not have the right to quote something that you said in public. When we choose to say something in public, we choose to broadcast it to the world…

Some have taken issue with Nolan's binary argument. Anil Dash, a blogger and thought leader, wrote:

Journalist Jenna Wortham noted that Twitter is often used differently than how it was intended:

Journalist Alex Howard argued that it's a matter of journalistic ethics:

Blogger Jamie Nesbitt Golden, writing at hoodfeminism, similarly argued that it's less about Twitter and more about the ethics of journalists:

But the real issue isn’t so much about Twitter being a public space; it’s about the absolute lack of empathy, sensitivity, and thoroughness when it comes to covering stories like these and the flippant, snarky responses that come from media outlets after the inevitable fallout. Testa’s quest to be the first to break the story alienated a number of people and did irrevocable damage not only to Buzzfeed’s brand, but the public’s trust. Some expressed relief that they didn’t share their survivor stories out of fear they’d become troll fodder. Testa didn’t take into account Steen’s safety or comfort, potentially exposing her to trolls and other unsavory characters.

In response to my own comments, Sarah Kendzior argued similarly:

This is an important discussion, and a serious one. As Twitter, and social media in general, becomes more and more popular globally, journalists will need to put more thought into how to they approach using it for their stories. While it sometimes may seem justified or in the public interest to amplify a tweet (think the Justine Sacco affair), in many other cases, it's at least worth asking: “Am I doing harm by amplifying this content?”

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