When I was in middle school, my best friend and I pretended to be in a fight that started, like most important things at that age, with AOL Instant Messenger. We stopped speaking to each other and told everyone about the online conversation that started it all—planned that morning on the bus ride to school—dividing our friend group into “The Broken Noses” and “The Left Feet” (for some reason). By the end of the day, the name-calling and cold-shouldering got to the point where we were afraid to tell people the whole thing was actually a joke.
Flash-forward a decade or so to planning for this year’s April Fool’s Day, when my colleagues and I brainstormed a fake in-house Twitter beef that would divide our site into Consequence and Sound. Unlike my young, impressionable self, we decided against it during a debate in our company chat room(some things never change). What if our series of prank Tweets legitimately confused our readers in the same way that my IM “fight” divided all our friends? Admittedly self-contained enough to fizzle on their own, Twitter beefs still run on the same ego that makes fooling people fun. They’re also a perfect example of how spur-of-the-moment, off-the-cuff, insert-rash-decision-epithet-here tweets can take on a destructive life of their own.
The recent throwdown between M.I.A. and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, for instance, started innocently enough: after M.I.A. encouraged her Twitter followers, including Cooper, to watch the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, she tweeted, “@AndersonCooper called me a terrorist for speaking out, and expressed support for the SLgov when this was happening.” Seemingly out of nowhere, M.I.A. turned a plea for social conscientiousness into a self-righteous accusation intended to pick a fight. And that’s exactly what happened.
After Cooper took the bait and asked, in so many words, what the hell she was talking about, M.I.A. continued, “YOU CALLED ME A LADY TAMIL TIGER when I talked about tamil civilians dying, and u printed a retraction,” explaining, “in 2009 u linked to an articl that was written about me with false info. There was a rebuttal on ur 360 site [sic].” By then, all her “you called me”’s made it doubtful that the purpose of the tweet that started it all was outwardly motivated. Instead, M.I.A. used the film and its dying civilians as a jumping-off point for her own righteous indignation, which she’d obviously been stewing over for years, against Anderson Cooper. Of all people, she picks the paragon of journalistic integrity.
Sure enough, Cooper factually responded that she got it wrong. He wasn’t the one that called her “Lady Tamil Tiger,” but a different writer featured on his blog. “Check your facts,” he said. “We link to many articles with different viewpoints, and we gave you an opportunity to respond.” He then chastised her for inconsistency, pointing out, “You’ve gone from saying ‘I wrote’, ‘I called you’, to saying my CNN show had a link to your article. Big difference.” Finally, he reminded M.I.A. that he defended her middle finger at the Super Bowl and expressed sympathy for her cause, because the man can do no wrong. By the end of their exchange, Maya backtracked enough to thank him for defending her but reminding him one last time to watch Killing Fields.
Their Twitter beef, especially M.I.A.’s stance throughout, isn’t entirely analogous to me and my good ideas about initiating fake Internet fights. Nonetheless, it exemplifies the aforementioned self-importance behind both, and how quickly such ulterior motives can change the end result for the worse. In a fortuitously relevant article published last week, The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones addressed how this “vanity” is actually one of Twitter’s benefits. He argued:
Twitter is both where the untruth flies first and where it gets shot down. It’s sort of a self-cleaning oven, where the wisdom of the crowd can work out the kinks. A reliable version of events generally emerges because vanity (in the form of a visible number of retweets for the user who posts the canonical version) fuels the process, much as a writer’s byline can press ego into the service of good writing.”
If we think about M.I.A. as “the untruth” and Cooper as “the wisdom,” then yes, Twitter’s high turnover rate allowed her to fly first and just as quickly get shot down. However, the “reliable version of events”—in this case, M.I.A.’s libel accusation which turned out to be misplaced—did not emerge because of Frere-Jones’ idea of narcissism. She could have stopped after typing #killingfields four times: that “canonical version” was retweeted well over 50 times, fulfilling Frere-Jones’ criteria for vanity and theoretically fueling another process of spreading the word about the Sri Lankan civil conflict. Instead, her ego fueled a stupid fight on Twitter that didn’t accomplish anything except to prove that M.I.A. should think before she tweets (really, “1ce”?).
The upshot of this whole thing is that her original intentions, unlike my frivolous shit-stirring, were noble. Good luck to anyone persuading people to watch a documentary about war crimes. Why should they, when they can be instantly gratified by a tweet’s power to “enhance the moment”? And that’s the problem: M.I.A. took advantage of that moment to lash out unexpectedly, drawing a respected journalist into the fray and detracting from a serious subject that could have led to greater social awareness. Who knows? Maybe some of her followers did, in fact, watch Killing Fields because she said something about it. But I’m willing to bet that most people only know about the film because it started yet another Twitter beef, my past and present Internet selves included.
Harley Brown is Senior Staff Writer and Associate Editor at Consequence of Sound. She tweets erratically and enjoys eating cereal at the wrong hours.