The tweet-vacuuming outrage-bait Storify listicle has become one of the most tired and lazy crutches of online media. You’re familiar with them from sites like: every site. After something notable happens on Twitter, enterprising young content miners run a simple Twitter search, cherry pick a dozen or two tweets corresponding to the subject at hand, then embed them into a post. Voila! Research.
One recent example on BuzzFeed, somewhat hyperbolically titled “Coca-Cola’s Multilingual Super Bowl Ad Inspired A Complete Meltdown Online,” picked through reactions to the Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad for jingoistic reactions. Really hard-hitting stuff. Sucked into the meat grinder was Twitter user @seanfrederick, a fella that I’m friends with on Twitter and through the Boston bar world. His tweet, as anyone who follows him online would have instantly known, was ironically echoing the type of knee-jerk Americanism reactions that were flying around at the time.
— Sean Frederick (@seanfrederick) February 3, 2014
But in the five seconds people spend searching for outrage-bait tweets to compile lists like the one above, context, or user history aren’t considered. And so, Sean Frederick, racist on BuzzFeed.
Frederick has written an open letter to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick, which you can read at the bottom of this article. [Update: Since this article was published, Frederick has received a response from Broderick and BuzzFeed and they've agreed to remove his tweet from the post.] I’m sympathetic to his situation, although I’m not sure threatening legal action against a member of the media is something I can endorse all that enthusiastically, or a case that he’d even win. But it does bring up some interesting questions about how this whole thing works now.
Patton Oswalt illustrated just how easy it is for tweets to be taken out of context a while back, by breaking out incomplete thoughts into a series of two tweets at a time. For example, “all abortion should be illegal, no exceptions. Just go ahead and UNFOLLOW me, you right wing hate-mongers” seems pretty questionable, unless you had read the tweet that preceded it in his timeline: “Saying that gay marriage is unconstitutional is as hateful & ignorant as saying.”
Clearly it’s very easy to take people out of context on Twitter. But can you take their words at all? You may remember the case from last year about the journalist who claimed that none of her tweets were publishable.
Are tweets in fact copyright protected? That’s still unclear. Although there are compelling arguments on either side.
In the meantime, I find this sort of conflict fascinating. On the one hand, everyone should know by now that posting a tweet is putting them on the record in front of the entire world, but on the other hand, there’s zero responsibility placed upon anyone doing tweet roundup lists to verify that what the person said was true, or what they actually meant. It’s roughly analogous to the problem with revenge-porn websites. If you don’t want your naked picture on the Internet, don’t take one. But once it’s gotten out, that’s certainly not worth ruining someone’s life over.
I’m also curious why Twitter doesn’t implement a notification that lets users know when your tweet has been embedded somewhere. As a creator of content myself, I’d certainly be interested to know when someone is quoting me, or using my ideas without my permission, or without even acknowledging to me that they’ve done so.
Here is Frederick’s unedited response to BuzzFeed:
Hi Ryan, it’s Sean! It’s nice to meet you here on Instagram, since you haven’t replied to any of my queries via Twitter. That’s understandable, as you must be busy – what with all of the shibe memes to comb through and “Snapchat selfies” to compile. After all, the next big BuzzFeed post doesn’t write itself! [It does write itself. - Ed.]
Anyway, you seem like a pleasant enough guy. In a parallel universe, right at this moment, we might find ourselves bellied up to the very same bar, sipping whiskey or beer and talking about our beloved Red Sox. (Which Will Middlebrooks do you think shows up this Spring? The 2012 version or the 2013?)
However, we live in this universe. It’s the one in which you painted me as racist in front of a half-million people.
It all started innocently enough. You see, the Super Bowl presents an irresistible opportunity for professional comedians and armchair smart-asses like myself. The annual event grants us a precious few hours to poke fun at something while EVERYONE is watching, a rare commodity at a time when the mass media audience is increasingly fractured into smaller subsets.
This shared viewing experience makes for an unusually fertile environment for material to go viral. Of course, you’re already familiar with this, since the timely delivery of highly-shareable content is BuzzFeed’s entire modus operandi.
Let’s flash back to several days before the game: After learning that a Cheerios ad (portraying an interracial family) might be expected to draw some controversy upon airing – as a similar ad did in May – I was disgusted. Nothing could seem more innocuous than the depiction of a loving Mom, Dad, child, and child to-be, notwithstanding their apparent preference for bland breakfast cereal.
So, during the game, when Coca-Cola’s multilingual ad (featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in a panoply of non-English tongues) aired soon after, I knew the spot might further catapult the most-vocal of our country’s xenophobic fringe into a frothing-mad state. You know, the same folks who think having to “press ’1′ for English” should be a Constitutional matter. The card-carrying members of “‘they took our jobs’/birther/’thanks Obama’/’Merica” America. Those whose contributions to our political discourse have become shrill self-caricatures. The sort of people who are almost too easy to ridicule.
So, I tweeted:
“@seanfrederick: Coca-Cola and Cheerios have been absolutely disgraceful tonight. #speakamerican #Benghazi” 2/2/14 7:51 PM
The tweet garnered a few meager laughs and favorites from my followers, who clearly got the joke. In the upper-right hand corner of the country, “Speak American!” is a pretty obvious (if hackneyed) punchline. And, using the #Benghazi hashtag, as comedian Rob Delaney does to over 1 million followers on a regular basis, is another wink to the audience that’s become a well-established Twitter trope. My tweet wasn’t particularly novel satire, but it was indeed just that – satire – and you don’t have to be a pointy-headed Northeastern liberal to realize that I’m breaking the fourth wall.
So, much to my chagrin, I awoke the next morning to find my middling, throwaway tweet included in your BuzzFeed post, “Coca-Cola’s Multilingual Super Bowl Ad Inspired A Racist Meltdown Online”
I made fun of racists. In turn, you characterized me as one, to a readership of 583,976 and counting.
There I was. My face and name repeatedly listed side-by-side with real, honest-to-goodness racists. For the past two days and nights, I’ve been lambasted by your readership and their Twitter followers, who’ve taken to me with virtual pitchforks in a misdirected burst of internet vigilantism. It’s become burdensome to reply to all of them, which I’ve since ceased doing.
Why? Because they’re not the problem. You are.
This piece was lazily pasted-together outrage-bait, pure and simple. You devoted a few minutes to searching for and pulling block quotes from a small, but reprehensible handful of Twitter bigots, padding the material not once, not twice, but THREE times with my one satirical item in order to mound the material into something that appeared to be an enormous groundswell of ravings, slapped a provocative headline on it, and fed it to an audience sure to seize upon the red meat with clicks, likes, combative comments, retweets, and shares.
By traditional reporting standards, your recklessness would be cause for dismissal. But, by BuzzFeed standards, you’ve excelled.
As BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah @peretti told Adweek what he looks for in employees: “People who really understand how information is shared on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and other emerging platforms, because that is in some cases as important as, you know, having traditional reporting talent.”
Unfortunately for you, the old media legal system still applies to new media, no matter how much “social lift” a story gets. And we’re destined to explore some costly ground should my name and likeness not be struck from your original post.
My grievances are less about an few inconvenienced days and more about my reputation for the next decade. A Twitter firestorm can blow over, but Google search indexing doesn’t relent so easily. It’s not a stretch to imagine your BuzzFeed post will be featured prominently amongst a Google query for “Sean Frederick”, given that it’s garnered a half-million pageviews and mention of the article is incessantly cross-linking to my Twitter profile.
“Contributor to racist meltdown”, is not a title I will tolerate, not when one’s current and future business opportunities, prospective employers, and personal reputation are often shaped by a cursory Google search.
So, this notice – however informally delivered – stands as very formal demand for retraction of any mention of my name, likeness, or quotations from the BuzzFeed post in question.
I hope for the both of us that it’s the last request I have to make, as I’m presenting you a very easy out. Should you not acquiesce, your road gets much harder.
I maintain legal residence in the State of New Hampshire, which allows false light claims to be brought against media defendants. In case you need brushing up, this invasion of privacy bears a lower burden of proof than outright defamation – it occurs merely when a publication places the plaintiff in a false light that a reasonable person would find embarrassing.
The last landmark case in New Hampshire took 5 years to adjudicate, nearly costing a New York Times reporter (not her employer, I might add) over $400,000. That was before Twitter. Before such embarrassment could be quantified. Today, one could expect litigation to slog onward in just as costly and lengthy a process. You could not, however, have an expectation that a New Hampshire court would rule in your favor.
You don’t want to go to court. I’m sure @HeyVeronica wouldn’t want you to.
Frankly, I don’t either, but make no mistake: I’m fully prepared to, if you give me no other choice.
You’ve gotten your pageviews. Now give me back my name, please.
Sincerely, Sean Frederick