How Twitter broke the news

ereHere is a very dumb truth: for a decade, the default answer to nearly every problem in mass media communication involved Twitter. Breaking news? Twitter. Live sports commentary? Twitter. Politics? Twitter. A celebrity has behaved badly? Twitter. A celebrity has issued a Notes app apology for bad behavior? Twitter. For a good while, the most reliable way to find out what a loud noise in New York City was involved asking Twitter. Was there an earthquake in San Francisco? Twitter. Is some website down? Twitter.

The sense that Twitter was a real-time news feed worked in both directions: people went on Twitter to find out what was going on, and reporters, seeing a real-time audience of people paying attention to news, started talking directly to those people. Twitter knew this and played right into it. In 2009, co-founder Biz Stone wrote that the platform had become a “new kind of information network” and that the prompt in the tweet box would now be, “What’s happening?” 

“Twitter helps you share and discover what’s happening now among all the things, people, and events you care about,” he wrote. In short, Twitter was for the news.

In the heady days of the millennial media startup boom of the 2010s, the sense that large social platforms would pay publishers for content and create a new class of lucrative digital media outlets was pervasive and unquestioned. And in those early years, no one knew which platforms would succeed. It is almost impossible to believe, but there was a time when Twitter felt like a real competitor to Facebook.

“Twitter was remarkably easy to work with, compared to the other social media platforms,” says New York Magazine editor-at-large Choire Sicha, who once ran platform partnerships for The Verge’s parent company, Vox Media, a role that entailed trying to make the platforms care about journalism enough to pay for it — or at least send enough referral traffic to our websites to make giving it away for free worth it. “Google was mysterious and wizard-behind-the-curtain-y; Snapchat was whiplash central, and every time you came back around, the person you dealt with last had been fired; Facebook was an opaque and officious Death Star.”

“But Twitter, while they definitely looked down on us and were always bothered by our simple requests, mostly just wanted to find some way to make both sides some money by creating stuff,” says Sicha. “We sort of had the same goal, and if you remembered that it never really sent any traffic, it was the happiest of platform-publisher relationships.”

We know what happened next: Facebook inflated its video metrics, a bunch of digital media executives carelessly pivoted to video in the hopes that they would become essential content suppliers to Mark Zuckerberg, and then he imperiously killed them all because he realized it was far easier to negotiate with an infinite supply of individual burned-out Instagram influencers. This is the BuzzFeed-shaped media wreckage we live in today.

In the meantime, reporters kept posting to Twitter for free, turning it from one platform among many that might potentially pay for news into a vital tool for newsgathering — and career-making.

Semafor editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who ran BuzzFeed News during the height of the Twitter era, describes the moment in simple terms. The platform “was a kind of central, essentially elite conversation where political and tech leaders and journalists and activists and others talked to one another,” he says. “It was never complete or ‘real life,’ but it was actually a more democratized version of an inside conversation that’s always existed.”

No one chasing money in media ever chased Twitter. But anyone chasing power found themselves irresistibly drawn to the platform.

Twitter “concentrated the conversation among tech, media, and political elites and somehow deranged all of them simultaneously,” says New York Times opinion columnist Ezra Klein, the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of our sister site Vox. “Politics and media happen on many levels simultaneously, but in particular, they happen at the mass level and the elite level simultaneously. And what was strange in this whole period was that the elite level happened on Twitter and the mass level happened on Facebook.”

That split between the big audience on Facebook and the influential audience on Twitter was instantly obvious to anyone in any newsroom who ever cared to look. Sicha is right to note that Twitter never sent any amount of meaningful traffic to any website — it was Facebook traffic that warped most digital media executives into futile aspirations of moguldom, and it’s the fast-receding tide of Google search traffic that has turned those same characters into frantic, mewling content goblins, desperately trying to force-feed AI-generated affiliate garbage into a robot that hates them. No one chasing money in media ever chased Twitter. But anyone chasing power found themselves irresistibly drawn to the platform. And eventually, the platform started to actually deliver that power in ways that continue to reverberate around the world.

“I don’t believe Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination in 2016 without Twitter,” says Klein. “I don’t think you have the same rise of democratic socialism in the Democratic party without Twitter or the same rise of Bernie Sanders. Twitter was a leverage point for politicians and also activists and the loudest members of the two parties. These are big coalitions of people. It became the place for the upstream conversation that would define what the media, the political class, and the technology class believed that important topics were.”

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heThe pervasive sense that Twitter was a centralized “elite conversation” was a deeply reductive force. It convinced generations of reporters and editors that Twitter was the conversation, that it was required to know what was going on, and that merely staring at the feed all day was the same as being curious and present and in the world. 

I had countless conversations with reporters in the pre-Elon Musk Twitter era who could not fathom doing their jobs without the site, who insisted that Twitter was where sources and scoops and true insight lay. It was utterly wrong and also completely understandable in a way that made arguing about it futile: Twitter could feel like a direct connection to a constantly shifting force in the culture, especially for anyone who grew up outside the corridors of power and influence. For journalists, being a click away from sources and experts speaking freely — too freely, at times — was completely irresistible. And being able to tweet right back was a power that could launch and shape careers. 

“I was such a diehard on Twitter — I signed up as a young foreign correspondent in the late aughts and was just absolutely intoxicated by it, especially as someone who spent most of my childhood living in Africa disconnected from the wider world,” says Lydia Polgreen, the former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post and current opinion columnist at The New York Times.

A single viral tweet could land a book deal. A well-timed DM slide could connect a young reporter with a source they’d never otherwise have access to. Trump! An entire generation experienced cable news as something more like a daylong video podcast about Trump tweets than a real source of information and analysis, and a reporter with a well-timed fact-check — or clapback — of our nation’s most dangerously online president quickly became a favorite of producers looking to feed the beast.

But while Twitter was always an incredible place to talk about stories and ideas, it was never a particularly good place for reporters to find and refine new ideas themselves. Twitter provided all of the feedback and none of the loop — spending all day on Twitter rarely made anyone better at anything but Twitter. Twitter catalyzed some of the great social movements of our time, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo to trans rights, but it also created a ferocious negative incentive for anyone working on challenging stories. 

Publishing an investigation into workplace harassment or sexism or even questioning the motives of a technology company would result in waves of Twitter vitriol in a way that flattened stories into little more than ammunition. Over time, the ever-present reality of online harassment, which was often expressed first and most ferociously on Twitter, pushed thousands of women and people of color out of the media entirely. The platform made newsrooms faster and more nimble, but it also made them more reactive and more afraid.

“Journalists are in general a bunch of insecure overachievers, so being in one ‘room’ with your ‘peers’ giving you constant feedback and information creates a truly awful petri dish in which the most terrible forms of groupthink thrive,” says Polgreen. “It can be very hard to resist for reporters, which makes it tough for editors to reorient their troops.”

Anyone’s tweets could be quote-tweeted and sent to viral heaven at any time, rocketing people into 15 minutes of deeply fucked-up fame

But the context collapse that made Twitter so dangerous and so reductive was also what made it thrilling — your feed could contain everything from tech executives to Beyoncé fans to the president, and anyone’s tweets could be quote-tweeted and sent to viral heaven at any time, rocketing people into 15 minutes of deeply fucked-up fame. 

The resulting mix was potent and warped every part of the media business around it — including advertising, which receded from funding news in favor of wilding on Twitter. A modern brand manages its social presence “every single second of the day,” Neal Arthur, the CEO of ultra-hip ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, told me last year.

Stepping back now, you can see exactly how destructive this situation was for journalism: reporters around the world provided Twitter with real-time news and commentary for free, increasingly learning to shape stories for the algorithm instead of their actual readers. Meanwhile, the media companies they worked for faced an exodus of their biggest advertising clients to social platforms with better, more integrated ad products, a direct connection to audiences, and no pesky editorial ethics policies. The news became ever smaller, even as the stories got bigger — there are would-be reporters in every part of the country and world posting for free, even as the local news business itself dries up. Twitter was founded in 2006. Since that year, newspaper employment has fallen 70 percent, and people in more than half of the counties in America have little to no local news at all.

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venEven a well-managed platform would have broken under the weight placed on Twitter — and Twitter has never been a well-managed platform. The notion that it could consistently deliver outsiders to power was itself outsized and short-lived. Eventually, the institutions pushed back. “I think it reached its apotheosis in the pandemic, in the Trump era, in the Black Lives Matter protests,” says Klein. “It reached a point of intensity that broke it because people had to reckon — all at once — with whether or not they wanted it to have that much power over other institutions, but also whether or not they felt like what it was doing was good for themselves and their institutions. And too many people decided no.”

As major newsrooms did their best to stop taking assignments from Twitter, and politicians and celebrities began walking away, another community stepped in: tech executives who’d gotten used to having audiences of their own.

“Elon Musk buying the thing was a different reaction to the breaking of it,” says Klein. “There’s an increasingly reactionary C-class that got really addicted to that space and that power, and they took it over.”

“A lot of people came to the conclusion that this thing is too powerful and too toxic, and I need to back off from it before I sink into a hole,” says Klein. “Musk came to the conclusion that this thing is so powerful, and so woke, that I need to own it. It was a billionaire megalomaniac response to the sort of feelings that make people like me say, ‘I’m done with this.’”

Whatever Musk is doing with Twitter — sorry, X — seems destined to diminish the platform for good. The man has said as much, inviting advertisers to go fuck themselves while simultaneously noting that said fucking will “kill the company.” The only real questions remaining are what happens next and whether the news media has learned anything at all, or if it will mindlessly race to the next platform daddy dangling illusory promises of traffic and revenue.

The platform era hollowed out journalism, destroyed trust across the board, and resulted in a lot of shitty, boring work

Challengers like Meta’s Threads don’t seem like drop-in replacements for Twitter — especially since Threads head Adam Mosseri keeps saying his team will not “encourage” news on the platform. That makes Threads a comparatively tamer experience than the chaos that drove Twitter to its height. “Threads is to Twitter as methadone is to heroin,” says Klein. “You don’t use it for the same purpose. It’s a pale echo to my understanding of what the original thing is.”

Klein thinks that’s a good thing. As does Polgreen. “I’m on Threads and Bluesky, but part of me hopes none of the replacements ever really take off like Twitter did,” she says. “I think a more fragmented social media landscape is probably healthier for journalism overall.”

That’s Smith’s view as well. “The big story of media now is fragmentation,” he tells me. 

Fragmentation might be a good thing — it also means there’s an opportunity to try new, bigger, more interesting things, instead of trying to shove everything into the same box. “Twitter was built on the simple idea that our communication should be simpler and blunter, and over time, people really felt how much smaller that made them,” says Klein. “Somehow the scale of communication increased, while our ability to communicate decreased. I hope we are sensitive to that now.”

A decade of reporters working for Twitter’s algorithm while their bosses desperately tried to work for Facebook and Google did not result in stable business, happy reporters, or even satisfied audiences. Instead, the platform era hollowed out journalism, destroyed trust across the board, and resulted in a lot of shitty, boring work. It was a mistake — and like any good mistake, it was sometimes a lot of fun. But it’s over now, and there’s no one to blame but ourselves.

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