02/03/2014 03:48 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

On Macklemore, and the Broader Problem of Cherry-Picking Someone's Old Tweets

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

I come neither to bury Macklemore, nor to praise him.

The lightning rod rapper's Up With People reboot at the Hashtag Grammys has stamped a temporary bullseye on the back of his leopard-print Goodwill pimp fur. Some want to tear him down for his three-year-old tweets they perceive to be anti-gay; other more disingenuous pitchfork-and-torch wielders want to show that he's a 9/11 Truther with the help of his Twitter archive and a well-appointed question mark at the end of a headline.

These tweets can be, and have been, explained. Let's not waste time with a defense of someone who is not as controversial as society wants him to be.

(And let us also not waste too much time pointing out that BuzzFeed's "Is Macklemore a 9/11 Truther?" post should have been called "190,658 Best Clicks For This Stunningly Lazy Post With Only Two Sentences But Now Also Two Updates That Disprove The Whole Post.")

This is a broader problem. There is literally nothing more irresponsible in today's media climate than cherry-picking from someone's thousands-deep Twitter history to either prove a point or a raise a conspiratorial red flag.

Rummaging through someone's LiveJournal or Blogspot or sent emails/gchats or even Facebook posts for unpopular opinions usually comes with some contextual marker of their integrity and character. But Twitter is unlike other platform in that it almost thrives on being context-free, making instant opposition research on a celebrity like Macklemore or a suddenly waist-deep nobody like Justine Sacco an easy game utterly devoid of journalistic fairness.

Like everything you post for Internet consumption, what you say on Twitter will live on forever. But your tweets are unique in that they often actually do live in a vacuum. We're piggybacking shitty half-baked jokes on top of news stories, or we're responding to smarm with snark, or we're attempting to one-up each other on silly memes and hashtag games, and these little snippets of questionable comedy that seem so goddamn LOL in the moment live on in our permanent archives as stand-alone nonsense (and, sometimes, borderline hate speech) without the building blocks that spawned them.

Let's take the non-Macklemore inspiration for this post:

Justin Green, online editor for conservative columnist-heavy Washington Examiner, hates Asians! This is damning stuff! Let's draw conclusions! And if you didn't see the follow-up to this, you'd walk away thinking he was serious:


If I do retweet Green's jokey sentiment the next time the Outrage-Industrial Complex sparks national fury over something demeaning toward Asian people, devoid of its proper context, he will have to explain himself. But how many people will even see that explanation? How many of the 190,000 who clicked that BuzzFeed post will walk away thinking Macklemore is a 9/11 Truther and tell their friends about it as fact if it's a gerbil up Richard Gere's bumhole? Macklemore's "dykes" tweet got more than 2,000 RTs and has been embedded into countless breathless posts. The follow-up from this week is not getting the same love (no pun intended, seriously).

This is, perhaps, the dangerous beauty of Patton Oswalt's brilliant Twitter joke construction experiment from last August. If you checked your Twitter feed without knowing what was what, you may have noticed some off-color, off-brand tweets from the comedian.

And so on. (Click here for the rest, this was so good it hurts.) Of course, these were two-part tweets, and taken together this was one of the best comedy tactics we've ever seen on the platform. For example:



But now, five months later, these tweets aren't packaged together, and if Patton Oswalt says anything about Jews or Hitler, someone will undoubtedly Google "Patton Oswalt Hitler Jews" and find the "Hitler was absolutely right about the Jews" tweet. Sure they'll eventually paint themselves fools, but remember than fewer than one in five American adults are on Twitter. They'll see the tweet embedded in some article before a correction or update, and they will walk away thinking Patton Oswalt is a rabid anti-Semite (his feelings about dentists are currently unknown).

Much of our modern media, filled with hoaxes and corrections disguised as "updates," isn't journalism. It's not even pretending to be journalism, and that's fine. Really, we need interesting content to read, even if it's not by definition journalism. But we must get away from the shrug emoticon worst practice of using someone's prior tweets against them to impugn their character or question their integrity. That's just lazily pointing at stuff.

Slade Sohmer is editor-in-chief of HyperVocal and co-host of SiriusXM's daily "Politics Powered By Twitter" program on POTUS 124. This piece first appeared on HyperVocal.