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Manufacturing Offence: Are Mean Tweets Newsworthy?

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Earlier this year when Peter Mansbridge interviewed Jian Ghomeshi attorney Marie Henein, one portion of the interview seemed oddly out of place. In between Mansbridge's generic inquiries about the case itself, the long time CBC anchor began reciting tweets from unknown individuals that questioned the gender loyalty of Henein. He presented these mean tweets as if they were a relevant part of the story, as if they were integral to the case itself.

All of the tweets had two things in common. First, they were absurd. A lawyer did her job, and she did it well. Questioning her loyalty to women was simply evidence of an increasingly volatile social media landscape. Second, no journalist worth their salt would ever ask the same kinds of questions without hiding behind the source of the questions -- anonymous people. It is a new form of yellow journalism, and it is becoming a lot more common than you might think.

In fact, if you dig a little into the archives of mainstream media websites and clips, you will notice a trend where the identity politics angle is almost exclusively supported by tweets and Facebook posts from unknown individuals instead of the direct questions or opinions from the journalist or reporter covering the story. Nowadays, journalists hide behind anonymous social media posts and pretend those opinions deserve spotlight coverage in hopes of unearthing a controversial sound bite or another clickable headline.

In today's fast-paced world of scrolling news feeds and hashtag searches, audiences want to feel more connected to the people and organizations they rely on for information.

Most recently, this new tabloid method of reporting was front and centre after the Trudeau elbowing incident in the House of Commons. NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who was on the receiving end of the errant elbow, has been declared the newest saint of victimhood, canonized after receiving mean tweets from various nobodies online. It is immaterial that Trudeau has apologized to Brosseau four times in the House of Commons, or that there is a nearly universal agreement that the incident was both accidental and had nothing to do with gender.

What matters, and this is partially due to the overreaction from NDP leader Tom Mulcair, as well as the bizarre, context-butchering statement from NDP MP Niki Ashton, is that mean tweets were tweeted. In a further development, phone calls were made to her office! In the murky realm of identity politics, that's why this is a story.

So why is this happening to journalism? Since when do seasoned reporters resort to scouring Twitter feeds to find mean tweets about public figures, then use those tweets as a springboard to manufacture a news event? In today's fast-paced world of scrolling news feeds and hashtag searches, audiences want to feel more connected to the people and organizations they rely on for information. They want to be a part of the story, and for some reason we are giving in to them.

Whenever I write a story critical of Justin Trudeau, I receive hate mail. I suppose if I wanted to I could coordinate with other writers who have criticized Trudeau, we could pool our hate mail, brand the senders as Trudeau Bros and manufacture a story as a way of gaining web traffic. It would be pretty easy to do, but it would also be a cheap way of getting lots of people to read something completely useless.

Instead of unearthing interesting stories, we might as well head on down to Dundas Square, find a man with obvious mental issues who sells pencils from a cup, get a few quotes about how he hates Jesus, and write a story about the anti-Christian vibe sweeping through Canada's largest city.

What we need is a media who doesn't prop up random tweets and Facebook posts as if they are reliable sources or pertinent information.

Or, as members of the media, we can stop pretending mean tweets are at the heart of any given story. On the contrary, reporting the vitriol from random individuals distorts the story and invents a new, artificial angle, a process that satisfies the loudest, rudest members of social media but does nothing to further the interests of the public.

Let's not forget, Jimmy Fallon uses mean tweets as part of a comedy bit where celebrities read out mean tweets about themselves. Why? Because those tweets are irrelevant. They are not newsworthy. At all.

But there is hope. Part of the backlash Brosseau received was from women in Canada who were frustrated that something so benign was being portrayed as something so earth shattering. This is where identity politics becomes interesting. Instead of a universal cry about how an elbow infringed upon women worldwide, a sensible posse of strong women materialized, frustrated at the infantilization of females via the overreaction to Trudeau's physical gaffe, told stories about how they have been accidentally elbowed while riding the subway, and declared Brosseau's reaction to be the antithesis of strong. This is the sole bright spot in a story soaked in stupidity; that there is a pushback to the asinine idea that mean tweets mean anything other than there are some mean people in the mean universe known as the Internet.

Circling back however, all of this is unnecessary. We do not need to go down Obvious Avenue to find out that an inadvertent elbow is not the antagonist of identity politics. What we need is a media who doesn't prop up random tweets and Facebook posts as if they are reliable sources or pertinent information. We do not need elected MPs acting as if Parliament Hill needs Safe Spaces for colleagues who are inexplicably traumatized by an accidental elbow.

And most of all, we certainly do not need to take random, anonymous keyboard warriors seriously. This is especially true for public figures. Internet trolls are not going away anytime soon, but always remember; to them, the block button is like a thousand elbows to the chest.

From there a simple adage will do; sticks and stones, people. Act accordingly.

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