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Are retweets endorsements?

Retweeting is harmless, right?


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 2, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 4:28 pm CDT

A whistleblower who champions civil rights and a notorious far-right leader might seem like odd bedfellows. But Edward Snowden found himself in agreement with Marine Le Pen, the controversial president of the National Front in France, yesterday when she argued in favor for asylum for Wikileaks co-founder and perennial fugitive Julian Assange.

Snowden retweeted Wikileak’s own article on Le Pen’s support and soon after faced criticism for arguably passing along the word of a leader who compared Muslims in France to Nazi occupiers and endorsed Donald Trump for president of the United States.

Snowden quickly defended himself with an adage as old as Twitter itself.

Many a professional profile shows such a qualifier, typically alongside “my opinions are my own.” And it’s true—retweeting is often meant to highlight a controversial statement by another rather than show support for the statement or the person making it.

But for many large accounts—Edward Snowden has upwards of 2.1 million followers—it’s worth questioning whether they hold a different level of responsibility.

It can be easy to think of social media as a singular phrase for the collective of sites like Twitter and Facebook. But both of these sites provides a platform for people to become their own media outlets. You might not think of your own Twitter feed this way, but even if you’re just cracking jokes or sharing news articles you are, in effect, a media entity.

What hasn’t come with such a title, however, is the standard of responsibility to which media companies (ideally) hold themselves

Good journalists, especially those with large audiences, recognize the importance of having standards for what to broadcast and what not to broadcast. One should not publish rumor, for example, or help push the agenda of hate groups. Giving airtime (or the digital equivalent) to unproven facts or to groups looking to achieve fame in order to do harm makes a media company at least implicit in the doing of said harm.

For many large accounts, it’s worth questioning whether they hold a different level of responsibility. 

Does the same apply to individuals using social media? We might like to think not, but people who tweet and share information that is either untrue or damaging share responsibility in the spread of said content. No single tweeter might think themselves to blame for the spread of what they retweet, but it’s impossible for anything to achieve popularity without the kind of individual choice Snowden made in regard to Le Pen. On The Media’s Breaking News Handbook reminds people watching news break online to “beware reflexive retweeting. Some of this is on you.”

Twitter itself knows this quite well. When the company banned accounts promoting the extremist group ISIS, it sparked a debate about what else the company might decide is unsavory for its audience. Even within its own media policy, Twitter states the company “considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content” before following requests to remove images or videos. In a bid to support the European Commission’s recent ban on digital hate speech, Youtube, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter announced this week a new initiative to prevent “hateful rhetoric and prejudice” from spreading online.

Such a tight hold can seem restrictive to free speech advocates, but the EC and these companies are arguably enforcing the level of media ethics their users should have for themselves. It can be easy to claim, like Snowden did, that publicizing—and therefore validating—the words of a neo-fascist does not make one complicit in the popularity of said figure. Snowden is, after all, a private individual and not a company with the expressed purpose of spreading the news. But as each person becomes their own media outlet, especially when they amass the following Snowden has, tightening your standards for what to retweet and what not retweet is a worthwhile exercise in ethics.

One person who has summarily failed such a test is Donald Trump. Much is made of the power Trump holds on Twitter, and how his 8.6 million followers enables him to subvert the editorial  gatekeeping of traditional media and demand control of the news cycle at any given moment. What is also does, however, is put little between his own judgement and a highly-publicized format for any matter of delusional or hate-filled tweet. Trump received criticism for retweeting a far right user named “White Genocide,” for example, and dangerously false facts about black-on-white crime. He called Fox News host Megyn Kelly a “bimbo” through a retweet and likewise shared an offensive joke about Heidi Cruz. Through sheer determination, Gawker even once got Trump retweet Benito Mussolini. One analyst found that, in a single week, over half of Donald Trump’s retweets published the words of white nationalists to his millions of followers.

“The thing that gets me in trouble is the retweets,” Trump admitted in a recent interview with Kelly. “The retweet is really more of a killer than the tweets.” The reason for that unique power inherent in the retweet is it transforms the user from a creator to a broadcaster. Suddenly, you aren’t putting your own words under your name but the words of others who might not show the same restraint you would typically find within yourself. But it spreads the message all the same. Trump retweeting an insult is functionally no different than him highlighting an obscenity said by someone in his audience and facetiously claiming, “she said it, not me!

As each person becomes their own media outlet, tightening your standards for what to retweet and what not retweet is a worthwhile exercise in ethics. 

Such second-degree support for dangerous ideas is precisely the kind of content a healthy media company might otherwise attempt to avoid. Social media might not feel they should have such power, but those with millions of followers actively do. A survey by the the American Press Institute found 76 percent of Twitter users obtain their news through the service. Much of that is likely from the accounts of media companies, but many individuals pushing the same storyline, quote, or image can have the same validating effect and each individual holds responsibility for its spread.

The literal content of Snowden’s retweet is not especially surprising or—depending on your opinion of Assange—all that dangerous. And Le Pen is already a major political figure in France, not a fringe element begging for mainstream status. But the absolvement of fault we often seek by claiming we don’t endorse that which we retweet is a false alibi.

Ideas and people gain momentum one step at a time, and social media users, just like the media itself, would do well to remember that.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.

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*First Published: Jun 2, 2016, 2:04 pm CDT