Pat Fitzgerald Controversy Highlights How Twitter Manipulates the Media

Northwestern’s director of football operations, also responsible for Pat Fitzgerald’s twitter feed, made a mistake. He accidentally tweeted about Jeremy Lin on Fitzgerald’s account instead of his own, saying “There’s finally a NBA player who plays hard and says the right things off the court.” The tweet was assumed to have a racial context and the issue escalated quickly into a controversy about Pat Fitzgerald being a racist, before it was confirmed he wrote the tweet.

Fitzgerald said he’s ultimately responsible for what comes from his Twitter feed but said of the “racist” label: “It’s defamation of character. If I could, I’d sue somebody. But that’s not who I am.”

This incident highlights the downside of Twitter. It is a wonderful, useful tool, allowing us to form new social connections, to distill the Internet to our own interests and to transmit information instantaneously. The problem is it also affects how we assimilate and process information.

Twitter is about the simplest means we have to convey thought. A book allows for broad, expansive thought. An essay allows one to summarize that thought. That can be further condensed into an article, a blog post and finally a microblog or tweet. The thoughts are shorn to an essential 140 characters, devoid of nuance and unfiltered. They leave much room for interpretation.

The simpler the means, the faster  and wider the thought travels. The tweet departs instantly, sometimes to thousands of people, who instantly send it to thousands more. Initial exposure to information often comes through the lens of someone else’s reaction, which can radically reframe perception, independent of the writer’s control.

Someone could have seen the Pat Fitzgerald tweet as this.

RT @coachfitz51 There’s finally a NBA player who plays hard and says the right things off the court.

This is a neutral endorsement. Perhaps there is a racial component to this tweet, but one must make that logical leap themselves. Here is another way the tweet could have been seen.

Woah. RT @coachfitz51 There’s finally a NBA player who plays hard and says the right things off the court.

Four letters, one period and a whole lot of context. Now, you’re not reading the statement objectively. You are primed to find something inflammatory or offensive. Once finding it, you might find it inflammatory or offensive and retweet it to your followers. Public opinion snowballs and, before long, Pat Fitzgerald becomes a flaming, unfettered racist taking shots at Derrick Rose. It’s psychoanalyzed, before there’s even proof Fitzgerald wrote the tweet.

Being careful what you tweet is obvious, but media members must be careful as well how they react to and manipulate information on twitter. A strong reaction from someone with disproportionate influence can distort an organically evolving story. We must also consider how to interpret a tweet from a news perspective. It’s a new mode of communication, existing in a grey area between extemporaneous speech and publication. It often provides virtually no context for interpretation. There’s a tremendous tendency to fill in that context through logical supposition which, as the Fitzgerald incident shows, can often be inaccurate and unfair.

[Photo via Getty]

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