Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The rebuttal tweet

There’s a great blogpost from Nancy Scola about the rise of Twitter hashtags as form of political discourse, specifically focusing on the #WeCantWait tag, which both quotes President Obama about the need for rapid action on a jobs bill, and invites snarky commentary on both sides of the political aisle about what Americans can’t wait for (a one term Obama presidency, a more cooperative Congress, etc.) Scola steps right up to the line of coining a neologism – the snarktag – with this observation: “Once the Dewey Decimal system of Twitter, hashtags are being embraced by the political class as an ideal way to snark.”

I mention the piece for three reasons. It’s a good read. It quotes Gilad Lotan of media analysis firm Social Flow at length, and Gilad spoke this evening at MIT, along with Hal Roberts and Erhardt Graeff on “Mapping Media Ecosystems“, an event I hosted for the Center for Civic Media, which I’ll blog about tomorrow. (Video will be up shortly – very cool event.) Third, Nancy’s piece got me thinking about another related, unnamed Twitter phenomenon that I’ve been experiencing: the mass rebuttal tweet.

Since the start of the Bahrain uprising in February of this year, I’ve been tweeting about Bahrain fairly often. I tweeted about the disappearance of Global Voices blogger Ali Abdulemam, and his sentence in absentia to 15 years in prison for his alleged role in plotting a coup against the government. I’ve tweeted about my frustration that the US continues to station a large contingent of military personnel in Bahrain and was close to selling armored Humvees and missiles to the country. (Under political pressure, the Obama administration has delayed that sale.)

When I tweet about Bahrain, I get fairly few retweets – it’s not an issue many people are following. But I started getting regular responses from @fatoooma92. This user identifies herself as a “Student @ CHS year 2″, which likely refers to the Bahrain College of Health Sciences. Much of her stream is in Arabic, but responses to me are in English, and they argue in passionate, if unpersuasive, terms that Bahraini protesters aren’t peaceful activists, but dangerous, violent traitors.

Fatoooma92 is fond of sending videos and images to make her case. While I don’t find them especially persuasive, evidently she does. And she sends these videos to a wide range of people who’ve written about Bahrain: not just me, but Barack Obama and Nick Kristof.

This is a little different from a now well-established Twitter practice: hijacking hashtags. If I want American conservatives to know about a story I think they’ll like (or hate), I can tag it #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter) and people following that tag will stumble on my link. (Yes, posting bit.ly links to The Lemon Party to #tcot has been tried, and no, it’s not all that funny. Besides, do it enough and conservatives will post their own disturbing links to #p2 – progressives 2.0 – or worse, to the universal liberal hashtag, #npr…) These rebuttal links aren’t going to the #Bahrain conversation, which has at least two sides to it. It’s a personal message, visible to only the targeted individual (and someone who happens to be following both the sender and the recipient.)

As Fatoooma92 is sending the same message to lots of people, it looks a little like spam. But it’s not commercial. And to a certain extent, it’s not unsolicited: I’ve posted using the tag #Bahrain, and Fatoooma92 is engaging with me directly, as someone who’s expressed an opinion on Bahrain. Unlike broadcast media in America, which abandoned right of response in the scrapping of the fairness doctrine for most new stories, Twitter ensures a right of response. Don’t like something I say? You can send me an @message, and there’s a decent chance I’ll read your response.

On balance, I think this is probably a good thing. Yes, it’s possible that Fatoooma92 is not a real student in Bahrain, but the astroturf creation of a PR agency attempting to defend Bahrain’s reputation in Twitterspace. (If Bahrain doesn’t have a firm attempting to contest perceptions in social media, it’s probably just a matter of time before they find one.) And this sort of activity reminds me more than a little of Zumabot, an early bot that trawled Usenet for references to Turkey and automatically posted rants accusing Armenians of genocide against Turks in WWI. (Zumabot had the odd habit of not being able to distinguish between the country and the bird, so discussions of Thanksgiving cookery had a tendency to become filled with anti-Armenian hate speech.)

But it’s also possible that Fatoooma92 is a real person, who really thinks I don’t understand Bahrain and am being brainwashed by a global media conspiracy. Whether or not she’s right or wrong is, to some extent, irrelevant. In the same way that it’s helpful for me to get pushback (as well as reinforcement) when I amplify a story like Morgan Housel’s argument that Occupy Wall Street protesters are likely to be part of the globally economically privileged 1%, it’s important to get the reminder that what I believe about Bahrain is not universally believed, and that other people are at least as passionate about the topic than I, often in a different direction.

The flip side, of course, is that being on the receiving end of this speech is pretty unpleasant. I checked in on my @messages while writing this post, and was greeted with this missive from @perrysupport129: “@UBCSMN @EthanZ Anti-Christ to Muslims: You’re filthy cowards and Muhammed was a child molester” followed by a URL, making the “argument” at more length. The trigger for this rebuttal appears to be the fact that I’m giving a talk on the Arab Spring at the University of British Columbia (@UBCSCM). Perhaps a Rick Perry supporter is searching for every mention of the word “arab” and tweeting offensive screed as a response. Or perhaps someone wants to portray Perry supporters as ignorant racists, and is creating accounts like this one to make the case. Again, it’s hard to know.

There’s some sort of psychological impact that comes from receiving a rebuttal tweet. Twitter is a social network, and to some extent, we’re all looking for the small serotonin burst that comes from an affirmative retweet – “Yay, a person liked what I have to say!” Not only does the rebuttal fail to provide the boost – it provides (for me, at least) a much stronger negative signal: someone I don’t know disagrees with me strongly enough to single me out and correct me. Did I get my facts wrong? Is this a chance to start a discussion, or is someone merely yelling at me? Even if I’m confident about what I wrote, the rebuttal tweet interrupts my comfortable echo chamber of affirmation and invites me to think about whether I’m considering an issue broadly enough. And that’s often a good thing.

Except when it’s not. I have friends who are knowledgeable about Israeli/Palestinian relations who choose not to write about the subject because they fear a flood of tweets, messages and blogposts in rebuttal. Many of those responses aren’t meant to convince – they’re meant to bully the initial speaker into silence. And perhaps that’s what Fatoooma92 is trying to do. Her first tweets made clear that she, as a Bahraini, knew more about what was happening in her country than I did, and that I should butt out. Had I not been following Bahrain closely, I might have taken her hint and shut up. It seems to me the value of the practice is directly connected to whether it’s attempting to silence speech, or attempting to challenge opinions expressed. Which direction it evolves in, and whether the practice remains fairly obscure or becomes commonplace: I look forward to watching and finding out.

One Response to “The rebuttal tweet”

  1. Ethan,

    Really, many thanks for this post, and I know precisely how you feel re: the “rebuttal tweet”, as I’ve also gotten a few in the past, and they can be somehow quite jarring, disturbing, even de-centering.

    It’s interesting the extent to which, if I may be forgiven for the phrase, that Twitter seems to be reinforcing the Balkanization of cognition among media participants, rather than reducing it: the “Butt out you neo-imperialist Westerner” or “Shut up you terrorist-sympathizing Easterner” is becoming a disturbing communicative baseline on the service.

    -Chris

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