Clipped Tweets Foster Stereotypes in Viral Political Age

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) remarks to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)–“Some people did something”–reminds us yet again how clipped remarks out of context can foster stereotypes, even when a speech attempts to dispel them in the Muslim community.  What can media and practitioners do to recognize and minimize fallout?

The Washington Post video above and its coverage of Omar’s March 23rd speech at a CAIR banquet illustrates how a tweet–in and of itself, a “clipped” platform allowing only 280 characters– can ignite viral and inflammatory reactions across platforms, ultimately risking safety of an elected U.S. representative.

The Post article and fact-check discusses the danger of clipped remarks that eventually led to tens of thousands of retweets and likes, prompting Brian Kilmeade of “Fox and Friends” to state: “You have to wonder if she’s an American first.”

Here is the paragraph upon which tweets were based, with an error on Omar’s part about the founding of CAIR (1994, not after 9/11):

“Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.”

Omar spokesperson Jeremy Slevin later acknowledged that the Congresswoman erred and meant to state that CAIR doubled in size after the 9/11 attacks. That error illustrates that facts are important in political communication just as they are in journalism.

The media and social media attention to the clipped remarks intensified when President Donald Trump tweeted “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!”

That prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to consult with the Sergeant at Arms to ensure that Omar’s safety is assessed because of threats to her and her family, according to CNN and other news reports.

The escalating situation is a reminder that Twitter, in particular, is rife with stereotypes and that journalists and public relations practitioners have an ethical obligation to depict situations accurately and be proactively as soon as stereotypes go viral.

A recent “reverse stereotype” study showed that the gender, age and political orientation can be discerned by a big data sample of a person’s text-language use on Twitter (no photos, videos, etc.):

  • Gender: 76% of the guesses were correct.
  • Age: 69% predicted ‘younger than 24 vs. older than 24’ correctly
  • Political orientation: 82% judged liberal vs. conservative correctly.

The study also showed that big data was of no help ascertaining the educational level of users, with only “45.5% judged correctly out of three choices—no bachelor’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and advanced degree.”

To be sure, people of all educational levels are capable of using stereotypical speech.

Living Media Ethics has a chapter on stereotypes with advice for advertisers, journalists and PR practitioners. Here’s an excerpt that includes content about resisting stereotypes adapted from guidelines by the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism:

  • Apply consistent guidelines when identifying people by race, sex, social class or other such category. Are the terms considered offensive? Ask individual sources how they wish to be identified and also consult with a supervisor, if appropriate.
  • Strive to present an accurate and full report to your readers, viewers, listeners, clients and customers.
  • Don’t overemphasize issues. For example, overemphasizing crime can perpetuate stereotypes, especially if minorities are depicted as the perpetrators.
  • Do cover a variety of stories about minorities, not just those related to race, and depict or quote minorities in non-race related photographs, advertisements, illustrations and campaigns.
  • Find out how issues affect different segments of society.
  • Expand your contact lists. Include minorities who can provide authoritative opinions for a variety of subjects.

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