For years, Facebook and Twitter have been at odds over news. But if we’ve learned anything in the past week it might be that it’s not clear that either service has to lose for the other to win. Twitter and Facebook present two different sides of breaking news: They are stock and flow; id and super-ego.
Twitter’s raw streams — especially when viewed through apps like Tweetdeck — are places to discover, gather, and process. The platform is dynamic and frenetic; information is rapidly proffered, vetted, and beaten back when false. Twitter’s greatest strength is its information density; it is a stream in the realest sense, offering anyone the ability to scroll through cascading updates quickly and efficiently. It's hard to argue, barring any complete redesign, that Facebook could ever catch up as a utility.
But there’s a strong case to be made that Twitter no longer fully owns live events. Simply put: Facebook Live is proving itself as the place the world goes to show what's happening, as evidenced by the important and harrowing broadcasts of Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds in Minnesota and Michael Kevin Bautista in Dallas.
This shift is yet another reason why much of the tech media and investors think Twitter is doomed. In the past 14 months the company lost a CEO, took forever to find a new one, watched its stock plummet (it only seems to rebound amid buyout rumors), cycled through product managers, frustrated users by moving slightly away from real-time feeds, rolled out a little-loved Moments feature, and has struggled to get a handle on its whack-a-mole problem of user abuse toward women, Jews, Muslims, and people of color. Former Verge founder Joshua Topolsky wrote an essay this January for the New Yorker on "The End of Twitter," arguing, “What should worry Twitter is irrelevance, and there is growing data to suggest that that is where the company is headed.” It’s been this way for years; in April 2014, The Atlantic went so far as to write a "Eulogy for Twitter." “Twitter is entering its twilight,” Robinson Meyer and Adrienne LaFrance wrote.
Yet the past week has proven a great reminder: For all its negative press and criticism, and despite a sustained assault from a far stronger rival in Facebook, Twitter remains not only resilient but vital when shit goes down. Twitter’s value during weeks like this one is difficult to argue: When it comes to intense, complicated breaking news, Twitter is still indispensable.
Take Thursday night’s tragedy in Dallas, Texas. Amid the chaos, Twitter was the primary source for anyone following along during the city’s darkest hours. Twitter was a gathering point for the protest before the shooting and, after the shots rang out, became the primary resource for information on street closures and critical updates from police, the repository for visceral images and video, the forum for outpourings of grief and support — and, ultimately, the source for insight into what was really happening in and around El Centro College for more than 12 hours. And Periscope, Twitter’s live video platform, was a vital broadcast tool, broadcasting critical Dallas Police Department press conferences into the night. And with Twitter as its distribution hub, the video found its way directly into the feeds of thousands of journalists and media organizations.
It wasn’t perfect; initial misinformation spread; minutes before 11 p.m., Dallas police released an image to Twitter of an unnamed black man with a rifle (later named as Mark Hughes), declaring him a suspect in the shootings. The photo was retweeted over 40,000 times. But it took less than 40 minutes for Twitter users to exonerate Hughes, posting photos of him peacefully situated in the crowd during the night’s first shots.
Even though Dallas PD’s tweet stayed up well after Hughes was cleared of all suspicion, the wrongful suspicion formed, spread, and was squashed across Twitter, in some cases, before TV news could process the same.
Hughes’ case reflects a broad truth about Twitter: Its most ardent users — protesters, journalists, and law enforcement — are seasoned at watching tragedy unfold. They know from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Boston, Orlando, and countless others that what feels like an honest fact in the moment may prove to be false later. They have become more aware of the perils and problems of misinformation. Twitter has taught a generation of avid news consumers that it can no longer trust legacy institutions (like police department Twitter accounts) to get it right in real time, forcing them to become adept at in-the-moment fact-checking.
Despite the confusion, occasional trolls and errant fake pop-up accounts attempting to fool deadline-pressed newsrooms, Twitter’s breaking news constituency — with its diverse set of communities (the diffuse groupings referred to, broadly, as Black Twitter, Social Justice Twitter, Media Twitter, Politics Twitter, Dallas Local News Twitter, and countless others) — remains unrivaled when it comes to swarming complex and chaotic developing situations.
And then there’s Facebook. If Twitter is built for speed and breaking news, then Facebook, with its algorithmic News Feed and curated news topics, is constructed to do just the opposite. It is as clean as Twitter is messy. It self-organizes into groups of people who have similar viewpoints, and doesn’t seem to do a good job of inserting randomness. Perhaps this is intentional: Sharing anything remotely incendiary or divisive could cause people to block or unfriend the poster — the worst-case scenario for the company that wants to connect the world. It’s the online version of bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
It helps explain why Facebook has long been the object of news hounds’ criticism: Twitter is raw and unfiltered and often hard to watch; Facebook is family-friendly, well-policed, and maybe, at times, even a little too slow and saccharine.
And yet the news of this past week challenged that long-standing dichotomy. Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook Live video — streamed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting death of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by a Minnesota police officer — offered a window into the disturbing reality for black Americans so compelling, disturbing, and powerful, that few could ignore it. “Witnessing, on the other hand — as an affirmative act, like Ms. Reynolds’s — can make a difference,” the New York Times’ James Poniewozik wrote of Castile video. “Without video, this kind of shooting might be an item in a local police blotter rather than national news.” Similarly, harrowing live videos shot on Facebook from Dallas bystanders like Michael Kevin Bautista were invaluable primary sources amid the chaos, chronicling tragedy in real time. More than that, they were able to allow the public to witness what would normally be a private — and impossible to re-create — terror.
These videos spread instantly into the national conversation. And they were posted there precisely because Facebook is a place where you are among friends, and yet also a place where the whole world congregates. Facebook after all, with its attendant 1.65 billion humans, is built precisely for this kind of rapid virality. The company’s Live platform is optimized at every level to allow truly interesting content to reach as many users as possible. And this week’s news cycles were drastically altered as a result. But there’s a reason these videos surfaced on Facebook Live.
Facebook rolled Live out to a massive, existing audience that is already used to uploading their very intimate moments — precisely because they are among friends.
It is deeply integrated into the lives of more than a billion people — hundreds of millions of real humans live considerable portions of their online lives primarily on Facebook in a way that few would ever dream to on Twitter. As such, the network occupies many peoples’ most precious mental real estate. Reynolds’ brave decision to reach for her phone and broadcast one of the most intense and traumatic moments of her life via the app is a testament to this.
“I wanted to put it on Facebook to go viral, so that the people could see,” Reynolds told reporters Thursday about her decision to post the video live. And it’s true. With its sheer size, Facebook’s Live platform offers an unrivaled opportunity to broadcast and be seen. In addition, Facebook’s insistence on authentic identities lends videos like Reynolds’ immediate credibility . And that same authenticity can also inspire others to share in extreme situations because they are sharing these tragedies among a community of known identities. As Reynolds said of her choice to live-stream Castile’s final moments, “I want the people to be the testimony here.”
But this is uncharted territory for Facebook, and the platform is clearly struggling with the darker side of real time. The service is only starting to share its censorship protocols for Live; its existing policies for taking down Live video are subjective, and its Trending Topics sidebar continues to be inscrutable and often arbitrary in its coverage.
The battle over breaking news on the internet has long been framed as a winner-take-all affair, but the reality is emerging as far more nuanced. Both platforms are imperfect and surprisingly interdependent, with ideas and events spreading back and forth between the two.
Take the last week: A Facebook Live video shot in Minnesota goes viral and ignites the media across Twitter, causing Black Lives Matter to organize a protest event via a Facebook group; tragedy strikes and numerous Facebook Live videos capture the raw footage, which becomes fast breaking news that is best followed and analyzed across Twitter. Taken together, they complete and feed each other’s information loops; both can stand alone, but each is weaker on its own.