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July 24, 2014, 5:39 p.m.
Audience & Social
LINK: medium.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Caroline O'Donovan   |   July 24, 2014

You may remember a public debate that was sparked not too long ago by a BuzzFeed story about sexual assault: Are tweets public? What sort of judgment should journalists use when amplifying statements made by regular people on social media?

Anil Dash returned to the topic today, with a post on Medium titled “What is Public?” In it, Dash brings up concerns about how industry leaders in tech and media conceive of privacy — typically, he argues, however it best serves their own interests.

It has so quickly become acceptable practice within mainstream web publishing companies to reuse people’s tweets as the substance of an article that special tools have sprung up to help them do so. But inside these newsrooms, there is no apparent debate over whether it’s any different to embed a tweet from the President of the United States or from a vulnerable young activist who might not have anticipated her words being attached to her real identity, where she can be targeted by anonymous harassers.

The essay generated a wide array of responses, many positive, from those who see Dash’s argument as a defense of the less privileged.

There was also considerable pushback.

Eventually, Gawker’s Joel Johnson ended up inviting Dash to a public debate of the issue, one which Gawker falls very decidedly on the opposite side of.

Later, however, Dash repeatedly argued that the majority of his detractors where white men whose privilege — of gender, race, and class — makes it harder for them to understand what’s at stake in the private versus public debate.

Not everyone, however, felt that Dash’s observation was proof that republishing posts is unfairly harmful.

Ultimately, the debate seems to boil down to whether we are concerned with the legal issue — in which case, tweets are public — or an ethical issue, which is more complicated. Most journalists would probably happily embed a newsworthy tweet, though many would likely seek permission and confirmation of the information therein before doing so. But Dash’s essay does engender worthwhile conversation about data, surveillance, and what our treatment of publics today will mean for privacy in the future.

(For what it’s worth, I didn’t ask anyone if I could embed their tweets in this blog post.)

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