Twitter Is Public. Deal with It.

Lindsay Beyerstein

Buzzfeed's use of Christine Fox's Twitter image without her permission ignited a debate about privacy, social media and journalism.

Last week, Christine Fox (Twitter handle: @SteenFox) asked her 13,000 Twitter followers to describe what they were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. Answers poured in from women raped in their pajamas, in their work clothes, and in outfits they wore as little girls. White jeans, yellow shirt. Roller skates for the 1st part of the night - I was 15 & it was my first date,” was one reply.

BuzzFeed reporter Jessica Testa noticed the outpouring of tweets and wrote a post about the What Were You Wearing” conversation.

Testa’s write-up included several tweets from survivors, which she used with their permission. This is in keeping with the longstanding journalistic tradition of protecting the identities of rape victims when a story identifies them as such. Testa did not, however, get permission from Fox to write a story about the What Were You Wearing?” phenomenon. In the post, BuzzFeed reproduced the photo that Fox used on her public twitter profile. Fox demanded that her photo be removed and BuzzFeed ultimately relented.

A firestorm of criticism and a debate on journalistic ethics ensued. Supporters of Fox asked BuzzFeed and Poynter’s Kelly McBride—who wrote a piece defending Testa’s actions — to take down their articles. Critics contrasted BuzzFeed’s article to a similar piece run by The Roots Jenée Desmond Harris, who talked with Fox before publishing her tweets. 

All discussions of journalistic ethics and Twitter must proceed from the following fact: According to Twitter’s privacy policy, tweets are public by default. If you just want to chat with your friends on Twitter, take a moment to set your account to private.” If you don’t, keep in mind that you are publishing your thoughts. You’re not only putting them in writing in a public forum, you’re using a platform modeled on a chain letter: Whatever you tweet can be retweeted by your followers, who can be retweeted by their followers, and so on. In principle, anything you tweet could have an audience of millions, even without extra-twittorial media attention.

A Change​.org petition is making the preposterous demand that Twitter somehow require journalists to get permission from all users in order to quote their tweets, not just sexual assault victims.

Some more sophisticated commenters have argued that that BuzzFeed erred because the tweets came from private citizens, whose tweets should somehow be considered more private than those of public figures. Whatever the ethics of quoting the chitchat of obscure users, they aren’t relevant to this case.

Even before BuzzFeed, Fox was writing for a larger audience than many small-town newspaper reporters. She had 13,000 followers when she started this conversation, which placed her comfortably in the top fraction of 1% of all active Twitter users. The median active Twitter account has 61 followers.

What Were You Wearing” was a public discussion from the outset. Fox announced that she was going to be retweeting answers, and many of the survivor quotes BuzzFeed reproduced include the words OK to RT,” indicating that the authors were comfortable with Fox retweeting their stories. This kind of performative political discussion, amplified by retweets, is a mainstay of Twitter culture.

For her part, Fox is adamant that What Were You Wearing?” was much more than an idle conversation among friends. From the beginning, she was collecting anecdotes in order to share them with a wider audience. Initially, she asked her followers to help her illustrate a point in an argument with a stranger who made a dumb comment about rape. The discussion eventually took on a life of its own, attracting tweets from as far afield as Belfast. One woman described her outfit in Spanish. In all, over 1,000 people responded, and their tweets were seen by hundreds of thousands of others. Fox agrees that the conversation was newsworthy, in fact, she claims that it changed people’s lives.

By describing what they were wearing these women stepped up to make a political point about sexual assault. Throughout history, sexists have tried to undermine women’s political speech by dismissing it as mere chit chat, especially when it involves personal stories. It’s paternalistic to argue that a woman who chooses to tweet about her sexual assault, expecting it to be retweeted to at least 13,000 followers, and then gives permission to BuzzFeed to reproduce that tweet hasn’t really consented to share her story. It’s bizarre to fault BuzzFeed for not getting Fox’s permission to write about a news event that was unfolding in plain sight.

Others have argued that BuzzFeed should have gotten Fox’s permission because she obliquely identified herself as a survivor in the course of the discussion. However, BuzzFeed didn’t identify Fox as a survivor or quote her disclosure. Fox appeared in the story simply as the person who posed the question. It’s not clear that Testa realized Fox had identified herself as a survivor. Even if Testa had known, she was under no obligation to ask permission. It would set an overly restrictive precedent if reporters were expected to ask permission to quote tweets on the off chance that the tweeter has mentioned a rape elsewhere in her Twitter timeline.

This is really an argument about credit and control. Fox is like a small town newspaper reporter who unearths a local story and reports the hell out of it, only to have a big outlet swoop in and turn her baby into national news. A lot of content creators resent BuzzFeed for reprinting their content without compensation. At its best, BuzzFeed adds value with aggregation. In this case, Testa added value by sifting through the tweets, picking out particularly evocative ones, organizing them into themes, and adding her own observations and context to make the point of the discussion even more clear to people who don’t follow Twitter: The stereotype that women get raped because they wear sexy clothes is bunk.

Testa didn’t need permission to cover a newsworthy event on her beat any more than a metro reporter needs permission to cover a rally in a public park. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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