What’s Six Orders of Magnitude Between Friends
how did this end up on tv? pic.twitter.com/xUYIOChhKv
— andrew kaczynski🤔 (@KFILE) March 6, 2020
In case you can’t watch, someone tweeted last night that for the $500 million Mike Bloomberg spent on his presidential campaign, he could have given every person in America one million dollars. This was so obviously, hilariously wrong I had to assume it was a joke. Dividing that money among the American people would have given everyone $1.53. And while I would have preferred my family of four get six bucks instead of the Bloomberg campaign, that’s…not a million.1 It’s simply a nonsensical point.
But then Brian Williams and Mara Gay picked up this point and re-iterated it. Now think about how many people were involved to find the tweet, flag it as interesting, make a graphic, display it, and then talk about it. And not one said, “Hey…uh…think your math’s a little off there, Mr. Peabody.”
Charles Cooke goes into the cognitive bias that made this possible. A fortune like Mike Bloomberg’s is difficult to fathom and we have an entire party telling Americans they can fund a massive welfare state just by taxing “the rich” (as opposed to Republicans, who think we can fund a massive welfare state by taxing no one). So maybe it isn’t such a surprise that this number sounded reasonable to Williams and Gay.
But I also think this reflects the danger of journalists using Twitter for news. I once saw a very good analogy for what Twitter is: it’s like a nonstop cocktail party with millions of guests who come in and out. Some guests are extremely popular and have thousands or millions who hang on their every word. Most have their own little corners with people they know. And like a real cocktail party, you can meet smart people who will inform you, bad people who will be cruel to you and dumb people who will mislead you.
Twitter can be very good with breaking news, but it can also be very bad. It can give you a real-time picture of what’s going on in an election. Or it can give you lies about a bunch of high school kids’ interaction with a Native-American protester. The burgeoning Coronavirus issue is a perfect illustration. There are smart knowledgeable people passing on insight and data. But there are also dumb assholes trying to score cheap political points.
It can be overwhelming. The only way to deal with it is to filter and curate your experience. I follow several hundred people. But I have a list of about 40 that constitute the feed I usually use. I also use filters to mute topics I’m not interested in. I exercise caution with breaking news and skepticism with fantastic claims to the point where I will sometimes refuse comment on a breaking story for the first 24 hours.
The media’s problem with social media is that it doesn’t filter — sometimes because they have no choice in a breaking story, sometimes on purpose to generate outrage or talking points. The classic example is when they try to convince us that “people are FURIOUS about Captain Marvel” and cite a tweet with two likes from a user with 12 followers. But this is the more subtle version: when they troll for something to talk about on the 24-hour news cycle and don’t take time to think about what they’re broadcasting. Especially when it confirms their priors.
We often say that Twitter is not real life. If it were up to Twitter, Corbyn would be Prime Minister, Clinton would be President and Greta Thunberg would be Secretary-General of the United Nations. But Twitter can give you glimpses into real life. I’ve learned a lot from people on Twitter on everything from military history to epidemiology to children’s rights to corporate law to criminal justice. But it’s a useful tool for me because I’m skeptical. I filter. I check out claims. I try to figure out which accounts are full of it and which aren’t and consider when experts contradict each other.
I’m far from perfect. I’ve often said or retweeted things I regretted. I’ve frequently sounded like an idiot. But at least I’ve never gone on TV and repeated a calculation that was by off literally a factor of a million. And I’m just some dude. Twitter is a distraction for me, not a critical part of my job
At some point, the media is going to have to learn how to properly use social media: with skepticism, with filters and with knowledge of who exactly you are citing. At some point..we all are.
- Well, to be fair, watching Elizabeth Warren dismantle Bloomberg was almost worth six bucks. When reports came out that Bloomberg was ending his campaign, our friend Drew Savicki quipped that Warren had already done that. I can’t believe it’s 2020 and we are still crediting a man for a woman’s hard work.