Last week, it was announced that Israeli actress Gal Gadot was cast to play Cleopatra in a new film about the Egyptian queen’s life. As wonderful as this news is for Israel, Gal Gadot and fans of quality films, that’s not what I’m writing about.
Soon after the announcement, articles started surfacing claiming Gadot was “receiving backlash” for being cast as the Egyptian Queen. After all, she’s Israeli and not Egyptian. I won’t comment on which actors should be cast for which roles; that’s a topic for another post, and one I’ll hopefully never write. I want to take a few minutes to look at the dissemination of information that allowed a non-story, or in this case — a non-backlash — to become a story, and the journalists who are at fault.
The article references 12 different tweets where people share their outrage over an Israeli being cast to play the Egyptian Queen. These tweets are the author’s source and his sole examples of “backlash”.
The Twitter Accounts in Question
In elementary school, my history teacher taught us about Bibliographies, also known as Works Cited. This is the page at the end of your essay where you give credit to all of your sources. There were two important things to know about bibliographies: (1) the syntax you use to list your source is disproportionately important; (2) your sources need to be credible, not just existent.
It’s not hard to find someone who supports a claim you want to make — the challenge is finding someone credible or reputable. Or, when a source’s credibility is in doubt, investigating whether the evidence provided is strong enough to support your claim.
The Complex.com article quoted 12 twitter accounts, only one of which seems like a quasi-newsworthy source: @SonnyBunch. They have just over 66,000 followers, are a verified account and write about culture for other known media sites.
Who are the other 11 accounts? Let’s take a look at some numbers:
Maximum follower count: 9,513
Minimum follower count: 130
Median follower count: 1,142
Average follower count: 2,327
Proportion of verified to unverified accounts: 1/11 (~9%)
I’m not suggesting that your follower count is what gives you credibility or that follower count in any way reflects intellect. I have a mere 215 Twitter followers (and I love every one of them ❤).
But, if you’re going to publish a piece that says Gal Gadot is getting serious backlash for accepting a role, she better be getting backlash. Posts from 11 Twitter accounts that 1,142 people follow on average is not outrage — it’s closer to a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it. And that tree is what brings me to the scariest part of this whole story…
After the Complex.com story aired, backlash started popping up all over the internet. According to content tracking platform Buzzsumo, 29 articles were written about Gal Gadot’s backlash between October 11th and 15th and they were shared close to 30 thousand times. That’s backlash.
The Dire State of Journalism in 2020
This is only one example of something that has become alarmingly common. Journalists are always grasping for their next stories, and digital publications are willing to publish anything. The same phenomenon contributed to the growth of fake news, but in this case, it’s closer to non-news. It’s not that they’re lying, it’s that they’re presenting an irrelevant truth as relevant.
The press holds so much power that stories often become what they are misrepresented as.
Think of online journalism as a hierarchy. You have your third tier publications like Complex.com, and when enough third tier publications pick up a story, a second tier publication is suddenly interested too. In this case, it’s not unreasonable to imagine Vox or Buzzfeed running with it. The same thing happens among the second tier publications, and before you know it, these non-stories have been picked up by The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.
All along the way, more and more people are Tweeting and sharing these articles, artificially creating a story. At this point, the non-news Complex.com published is very much news, and those initial 11 Tweets have thousands of likes and retweets. No one cares how the story started — now it’s real.
And once it becomes real, Gal Gadot is facing actual backlash. Opposing her playing Cleopatra has become a mainstream view, when in actuality, it’s a fringe opinion shared by 11 Twitter accounts that was picked up by an irresponsible journalist at a third tier news publication.
In this case, the story never moved out of the third tier of online journalism. But it did make more noise than it should have.
Thanks to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, everyone has a voice. Historically, publishers have been the gatekeepers of what’s “fit to print.” But as the cost of printing — or publishing — converges to zero, publishers are happy to publish things that would never have made the cut years ago. Worst case, no one reads the story and the publisher moves on. Best case, their obscure think-piece reaches tier one. There is virtually zero cost, financial or otherwise.
With these new norms, journalists must assume their new roles as the gatekeepers. Publishers may pursue clicks, but journalists are meant to pursue the truth. The press was once motivated by a civic duty to share important information with the masses.
Freedom of the press is a founding principle of the United States because of the responsibility the press holds. This principle is meant to enable journalists to report the truth without endangering themselves, not to present obscure opinions shared by 11 Twitter accounts as mainstream and perpetuate stories that can be detrimental to people’s careers.