Mar 13, 2014 · 5 minutes

Twitter sometimes feels like an ever-expanding digital haystack in which even the largest needle can be lost. There are some 500 million tweets sent each day -- it's unlikely that most of them will be seen by more than a few people. But that doesn't mean that they won't be picked up by some publication or another in their search for viral content.

That's what happened when BuzzFeed published a story that collected 23 tweets describing what sexual assault victims were wearing when they were attacked. Those tweets were meant to be retweeted -- they say as much in their text -- but some are upset by BuzzFeed's story and have used the opportunity to question the journalistic ethics of trolling Twitter for content.

The argument for gathering tweets without their poster's permission is that Twitter is inherently public. Anyone is free to retweet, share, or embed anything they find on the service. The argument against gathering those tweets, especially when they're about something as personal as sexual assault, is that these are real people sharing real stories that they didn't expect to see on a website that gets hundreds of millions of pageviews each month. Put another way: Something being technically feasible doesn't mean that it's ethically defensible.

And it's unlikely that an industry standard will be established around embedding tweets. There was a time when news organizations could agree on a few standards -- don't name minors in criminal cases, don't use off-the-record conversations, don't accept gifts -- but that's unlikely to happen with the sheer number of publications available online. What's acceptable at one publication is unacceptable at another, and things often vary on a case-by-case basis.

But there is another issue here, and that's the perception that there is safety in numbers, especially on a public service like Twitter. There was a time when someone could post something to the service without fear of someone else finding it, partly because it was so large and partly because its search function was so primitive. But that time has passed.

It's becoming easier and easier to find the right needle no matter how large the haystack becomes. Twitter's search function is getting better and better. Many of the apps used to access the service have their own search utility, which makes it easy to find tweets that even Twitter's built-in search can't find. Services like Storyful collect relevant tweets in real-time. The larger Twitter grows the better these tools become, and that's not changing any time soon.

That doesn't mean that publishing a story based entirely on personal tweets about sexual assault was ethical, journalistically or otherwise, or that it was unethical, for that matter. It does mean that the belief that there is safety in numbers is outdated, and it's about time that this particular myth is dispelled.

It's 2014 -- it's time that everyone knew how these services work and how they can defend their personal information and communications, no matter their subject matter.

Reactions from around the Web

Gawker explains that Twitter is public in very small words:

The things you write on Twitter are public. They are published on the world wide web. They can be read almost instantly by anyone with an internet connection on the planet Earth. This is not a bug in Twitter; it is a feature. Twitter is a thing that allows you to publish things, quickly, to the public.

Most things that you write on Twitter will be seen only by your followers. Most things that you write on Twitter will not be read by the public at large. But that is only because the public at large does not care about most things that you have to say. It is not because the public does not have "a right" to read your Twitter. Indeed, they do. They can do so simply by typing Twitter dot com slash [your name] into their web browser. There, they will find a complete list of everything that you have chosen to publish on Twitter, which is a public forum. The Daily Dot questions the ethics of gathering tweets, especially those with sensitive subjects:

This debate highlights that journalistic standards are somewhat beholden to public decency. Before rushing to defend Twitter’s content licenses, we should first question whether it’s kosher to expose victims of sexual assault to scrutiny. It is being a good human and a good journalist to ask permission when sharing other people’s tweets about situations in which they were victimized or traumatized, before republishing them to a wider audience.
Reuters reports on a case in November where a freelance photographer was awarded $1.2 million for photos that news organizations grabbed from his Twitter account:
A federal jury on Friday ordered two media companies to pay $1.2 million to a freelance photojournalist for their unauthorized use of photographs he posted to Twitter.

The jury found that Agence France-Presse and Getty Images willfully violated the Copyright Act when they used photos Daniel Morel took in his native Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, Morel's lawyer, Joseph Baio, said.

The case is one of the first to address how images that individuals make available to the public through social media can be used by third parties for commercial purposes. Pando weighs in

I wrote about the improved search capabilities on Facebook, which shows just how much public information its users have made available, last July:

Graph Search shows what can be done when the dots associated with publicly-available information are connected. It should also serve as an example of what someone with the proper motivation could do if they were to access all of those public dots and connect them to other data that you probably didn’t even know you were sharing. Facebook built Graph Search to prove that Likes could be worth something, to offer yet another marketing tool to its advertisers, and to show that it was more than a time-suck devoted to “Candy Crush” and pictures of an acquaintance’s Spring Break. It also accidentally offered the average person a look at just how much they’ve shared with the service over the years.
Social Wire CEO Bob Buch told Pando's James Robinson that Twitter's publicness is what makes it appeal to advertisers:
The essence of Twitter has always been a real-time feed that is focused on what is happening right now. Facebook has at its core always been a place for communication among friends, while Twitter’s openness may give it an advantage when displaying ads in the feed.  Users may indeed find it a more native experience to see an ad when it’s not juxtaposed with messages from their close network of friends.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]