Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The fast-moving world of Twitter has become the nerve center of the American news cycle — as evidenced by record-breaking downloads and engagement for the service last week.

Why it matters: Twitter is our mediaverse's grand interface between journalism and social media. While news organizations play a central role in sharing links to their coverage on Twitter, much of the visual content shared in real time during breaking news events like protests is shared by everyday users.

  • Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, a camera can be just about everywhere, but no professional news team can be everywhere.
  • The upside is that news organizations can quickly access footage that helps bring stories to light on TV.
  • The downside is that these videos, often difficult to verify, are immediately presented with very little context to large viewer numbers online.
  • What users see is determined by Twitter's social graph and its selection algorithm, rather than by editors or reporters applying (hopefully) professional judgment.

Our thought bubble: Twitter sets the news cycle's pulse because so many journalists are addicted to it. Its power is in agenda-setting. But that's all happening instantaneously and out in the open, not behind the closed doors of an editors' meeting.

The big picture: Twitter and other online platforms have opened a wide path for powerful images — like those of the killing of George Floyd — to reach the public.

  • Police protest supercut videos have proven wildly popular online, per The New York Times, helping to spur the #DefundThePolice movement growing alongside the racial protests. Some videos have gotten up to 40 million views on Twitter alone, and millions more on other platforms like YouTube and Instagram.
  • A video of a woman calling the police on a black bird watcher in Central Park on Memorial Day also racked up over 40 million views on Twitter.

But the constant flow of sensational content from everyday users, often lacking key context and unverified, also promotes polarization and the spread of misinformation.

  • There's a danger that for every really important story that comes to light thanks to Twitter, there are others that become big stories even before anyone knows if they're even true.
  • Case in point: In one story that recently went viral, a man was misidentified on Twitter and other platforms last week as the person who'd been caught on video attacking people for postering rally flyers in D.C. Online sleuths had wrongly connected him with the incident thanks to data his bike-riding app publicly recorded.

By the numbers: Wednesday was the number one day in Twitter's history for downloads with 677,000 globally, per app measurement company Apptopia. It also set a record for daily active users on Twitter in the U.S. that day, with 40 million.

Be smart: Twitter has long stood out as the social media network with some of the most news-focused users, per Pew Research Center.

  • While videos from one site are often reimagined and then reposted on other platforms, like Instagram and YouTube, often the raw footage from live news events is first posted on Twitter.
  • Around seven in ten adult Twitter users in the U.S. (71%) get news on Twitter. About 1 in every 5 U.S. adults uses Twitter.

Twitter's architecture suits it to be a go-to place for news. Its combination of short messages and its option to view a simple chronological feed makes it a good tool for news junkies and journalists alike.

  • Because most of the content is public, it's easy to share things broadly quickly, unlike a platform like Facebook, where user-generated news content is shared with friends, spreading slower.
  • The platform has also been popularized by world leaders that are super-users, like President Trump. These figures make news when they tweet, and their messages can start global conflicts, disrupt markets or drive civil unrest.

History lesson: The recent protests sweeping the nation, and the world, are similar to previous moments that helped make social media the news engine that it is today.

  • Major civilian uprisings, like the Arab Spring, have helped to democratized information in unprecedented ways.
  • But today, Twitter and its peers are mired in political culture wars. And their ability to act as neutral platforms for free speech is being tested by world leaders spewing misinformation.

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