The hypothesis that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory gained mainstream credibility over the past few weeks, prompting introspection—and criticism—about American journalism’s role in downplaying or dismissing this possibility. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argued that “a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter,” which he rightly observed is “the milieu in which the opinions of elite reporters take shape.” Yet the observation raises a bigger question, with implications far beyond coronavirus coverage: How has the 15-year-old social-media platform come to influence what’s reported as news?

Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet magazine, believes the lab-leak theory is only the latest example of how Twitter consensus leads journalism astray. He acknowledges that the news industry benefits from Twitter’s virtues—giving a platform to new voices, uncovering new stories, and delivering immediate information from all over the world. But, Rosenberg says, Twitter also exacerbates journalists’ human inclination to conform under social pressure and weigh in on subjects they know nothing about. “Twitter is the consensus,” he says. “It influences what you think and what you feel you can and can’t say. It becomes this mass socialization mechanism for journalists. That’s how you end up with all sorts of ill effects and big misses.”

Graham Vyse: How should we understand the dynamics of journalists on Twitter?

Yair Rosenberg: As many have pointed out, Twitter enables people who previously couldn’t be heard to be heard. Someone like me, writing for a Jewish publication, has vastly wider readership as a result of Twitter. I criticize Twitter and what it does to journalism, but my career wouldn’t be the same without it, and that’s true for a lot of people from marginalized communities. They’re able to show they know what they’re talking about and have real contributions to make to the public conversation. They don’t have to go through all of the gatekeeping. That’s part of what the optimistic narrative of the internet was always about.

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