The Media Is Way Too Easily Distracted By Twitter-Friendly Stories

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I logged onto Twitter Thursday night to discover stories trending nationwide about two fringe activists: a 21-year-old named Jacob Wohl and a would-be baby eater.

The would-be baby eater turned out to be a plant from the Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee, which apparently dispatched a woman to one of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) town halls to demand she support baby-eating as part of her climate change agenda.

Jacob Wohl is an operative whose short but checkered history in political disinformation campaigns clearly demonstrates the point of his spectacles is to attract media attention. On Thursday, he attempted to advance some very believable theory about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) extramaritally romancing a 24-year-old Marine.

Both stories proved irresistible fodder for Twitter, and understandably so. The bizarre baby-eating outburst was entertaining, although some on the right genuinely seemed to assign it news value for Ocasio-Cortez’s response, in which she did not condemn cannibalizing infants.

“Why didn’t she denounce a plan to eat babies? Did she really have to?” The New York Times asked. Of course she didn’t. What serious reason do we have to believe she’s pro-cannibalism? An uncomfortable effort to defuse the situation, general adherence to democratic socialism, and pie-in-the-sky environmental policies do not count. Without Twitter, this would have been just another strange moment at a congressional town hall, which are prone to strange moments generally. (I can, by the way, see this reasonably as an opening for some limited reporting on the LaRouche group.)

Wohl is low-hanging fruit that journalists just can’t resist picking. Amusing as his efforts can be, what little influence the guy retains comes from our inability to simply ignore him. Wohl has been discredited across the board several times over. The risk of continuing to elevate him is not worth the cheap jabs, which serve the cause of blue-check backslapping more than anything else.

Political Twitter is easily distracted by stories with a dangerously unbalanced ratio of news value to entertainment value, even more so than the cable networks. (I’m not excluding myself from this.) Because the conversation is driven by coastal journalists who use our accounts for social and professional purposes, there’s a premium on media gossip, insular Beltway chatter, and amusing viral content. Neither of the stories mentioned above speak to broader trends whatsoever.

The problem is that news outlets also use Twitter as an assignment editor, which has the effect of artificially inflating the importance of such stories—in newsrooms, boardrooms, and living rooms. Tweets have consequences, even the silly ones. That’s well-worth considering before getting sucked into the largely irrelevant Twitter pile-on of the moment.