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Retweeting: its linguistic and epistemic value

Abstract

This paper analyses the communicative and epistemic value of retweeting (and more generally of reposting content on social media). Against a naïve view, it argues that retweets are not acts of endorsement, motivating this diagnosis with linguistic data. Retweeting is instead modelled as a peculiar form of quotation, in which the reported content is indicated rather than reproduced. A relevance-theoretic account of the communicative import of retweeting is then developed, to spell out the complex mechanisms by which retweets achieve their communicative goals. The last section outlines the epistemic threats posed by the increasing prevalence of retweeting on social media, linking them to the low reputational, cognitive, and practical costs linked to this emerging form of communication.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Readers unfamiliar with the Facebook ‘Reaction’ feature may consult Stinson (2016).

  2. Here is a quick guide for the reader who is not familiar with Twitter. T1 is a snapshot of a retweet. The first line indicates the username (Donald J. Trump) of the person who retweeted the message. The original tweet follows below. On the first line of the original tweet we see the username of the person who originally posted it (LYNN THOMAS), and that user’s Twitter handle (@LYNNTHO06607841). The text of the original tweet follows. The last line displays the number of comments, retweets and likes that the original tweet received. Clicking on the four icons at the bottom, you can respectively add a comment, retweet the tweet, like it, or send a message to the original poster. Note, further, that this image is merely a reconstruction of the original retweet: just hours after it was posted, @LYNNTHO06607841 was suspended for violation of Twitter’s terms of service, and all its tweets were erased from the platform.

  3. Let me stress since the outset that by selecting these two hypotheses I do not wish to suggest that there are no other options to model the communicative value of retweets, nor that these are the most theoretically promising accounts that one could come up with. Considering these two accounts is instrumental to introduce and discuss some important features of retweets (and clear some potential misconceptions), laying the groundwork for the rest of the paper, in which I present my positive proposal. Beyond these motivations, note that one reason to discuss the endorsement view specifically (and its shortcomings, cf. §2.2) it that this view is often advanced or presupposed in public and legal discussion about retweets (cf. §2.2 and §5.1, and Metaxas et al. 2015, §2.2.3).

    A referee suggested that I could offer a brief overview of some of the alternative accounts that this paper (due to its space limitations) cannot directly discuss. For ease of exposition, we may divide them into two families, based on whether they come closer to the endorsement view or to the quotation view. Among the former, we may mention the view that retweets express trust in the reliability of the information contained in the tweet, or in its source (Metaxas and Mustafaraj 2013, p. 254); or that they signify endorsement of the person who issued the tweet, rather than endorsement of its content. Among the latter, we have the view that retweets merely express a desire to promote the original tweet; that they constitute an invitation to attend to its content; that they signify a “vote for the quality, novelty or timeliness of a piece of information” that it conveys (Van Liere 2010); or, more simply, that they communicate that one finds the tweet interesting. Note that most of the objections that will be considered in §2.2 also put some pressure on the former family of views, and that the view developed in §34 is able to accommodate most of the communicative functions highlighted by the latter family of views. So, although this paper cannot engage directly with each conceivable view, reasons in favour and against each can be found throughout it. For a more complete map of different conceptions of the meaning of retweets, cf. Boyd et al. (2010, p. 6), and Metaxas and TTRT (2017).

  4. Labinaz and Sbisà (forthcoming) prefer ‘espousing’ in a footnote where they observe that uncommented reposts seem to receive the default reading of an Austinian espousal. Let me also stress that my adoption of the term ‘endorsement’ (which is motivated by its use in online discussion about the communicative value of retweets) should not be taken to suggest that any attitude that could be described as ‘endorsing’ would satisfy the mooted view. Rather, the intended meaning of the word is the one stipulated in the text: for a retweeter to ‘endorse’ a tweet is for them to express agreement with the content of a tweet.

  5. For a discussion of recent examples of such attempts (both of the plausible and of the implausible sort), see  Mercieca (2017) and Colvin (2016).

  6. Adopting a popular acronym, in what follows I will abbreviate “original poster” (the issuer of the original tweet) as OP.

  7. Rini (2017, p. 12) has argued that we should aim to adopt the endorsement account—aim to make it become the conventional value of retweets. I agree that this would be epistemically desirable, as it would allow people to really hold each other accountable for what they retweet, limiting the spread of misinformation (cf. §5 of this paper). Against these optimistic remarks, however, it follows from the present analysis that we cannot converge on such a convention, due to the very fabric of the Twitter platform. That is, unless Twitter significantly changes how retweets work, retweets cannot be endorsements, as an important subset of retweeted content is not the sort of thing that one can endorse.

  8. To be sure, direct and indirect quotation do not exhaust the ways in which we can classify quotation based on how the reported content is represented (see Cappelen and Lepore 1997; Recanati 2000), but considering this basic opposition is sufficient for our purposes.

  9. Note that before the ‘native retweet’ was introduced at the end of 2009, the standard way to retweet a message was to copy-paste it after ‘RT’ and the twitter handle of the OP (e.g. RT @user: original tweet) (cf. Boyd et al. 2010, p. 3). These ‘non-native’ retweets sometimes misrepresented the original tweet, and it was not uncommon for retweets to omit part of the original message, since the addition of the “RT @user” syntax to the original message often caused the retweet to exceed the word limit for a tweet, forcing the retweeter to shorten the original tweet in order to make it fit. I will ignore this complication, as this paper uses the term ‘retweet’ to refer to native retweets only (rather than text-based ones), as discussed in §1.2.

  10. Clearly, if one visualises a tweet in one browser (or device, etc.) and its retweet in a different browser (or device etc.), differences may arise that are due to the features of the software (or hardware) on which the (re)tweet is tokened. But these differences are clearly irrelevant and beyond the point, because they arise in the reception and visualisation of the message (on a specific device), not in the production of it. To put the point differently, they are not differences between the tweet and its retweet, but rather differences in how each is displayed on someone’s device.

  11. Admittedly, matters are more complicated. I am helping myself with intuitive notions (such as that of a ‘digital window’) to refer to complex phenomena, and I am accepting some controversial assumptions (such as the idea that a retweet is a representation of the original tweet, even if it allows users to directly interact with it). As I anticipated in §2.1, one of the limitations of this work is that it ventures into a communicative environment where the traditional toolbox of pragmatics and philosophy of language simply does not apply. Since the aim of this paper is not to refine such a toolbox, I will have to limit myself to this level of approximation, leaving many fascinating questions (about identity and representation in digital environments) aside. For our purposes, it is sufficient to have established that retweeting has some important features in common with indicating that are absent in standard quotation, along the lines that I have sketched.

  12. There are non-standard quotations that are non-attributive. For instance, neither (i) nor (ii) attributes the target expression to anyone in particular:

    • (i) “Chitemmuort” is an expression in Neapolitan;

    • (ii) “Birds of a feather flock together”.

  13. I am not attempting to imply that the relevance theoretic approach has the upper hand here. A neo-Gricean view can easily explain our expectations of truthfulness towards retweets by reference to the Cooperative Principle and the Quality Maxim (Grice 1989), in particular drawing on work that extends such expectations to implied content (A. Green 2017; Stokke 2018). My aim here is merely to outline how the relevance-theoretic framework adopted so far can explain the epistemic expectations engendered by informative retweets.

  14. For an account of the moral and epistemic wrongs of which the misleader is culpable, and a comparison with lying, see e.g. Adler (1997), Saul (2012), Berstler (2019) and Marsili (2019). Note, further, that (both in retweeting and misleading) what constitutes a plausible denial may vary from context to context. We know from experience that it is easier to backpedal on mundane matters than it is about matters of life and death, that claims made by public figures and high officials are held against higher standards of accountability than those made in informal conversations between friends, and so forth (for elaboration, see Pinker 2007; Lee and Pinker 2010; Camp 2018).

  15. Two lawsuits concerning libellous retweets gained the attention of the media, both in 2012: one concerning a Swiss journalist (Hürlimann 2016), and another involving Alistair MacAlpine, whose legal case that could have led to the largest number of defendants (Williams 2012) (about 9000) in British history. An example of an employee being fired over a retweet is discussed in Bennett (2018). See also Buckley (2012).

  16. At the time, written retweets (using the syntax “RT @OP: p” described in footnote 9) accounted for less than 5% of all retweets, indicating it is likely that their growing prevalence was indeed determined by a sudden decrease in their practical and cognitive cost.

  17. Arguably, both reputational and non-reputational costs affect the communicator’s choice to carefully stick to truthful signals, as suggested by the role that physical ‘handicaps’ seem to play in maintaining animal signalling systems reliable throughout generations (Zahavi and Zahavi 1997; Searcy and Nowicki 2005). For more on the connection between costs and epistemic standards, see Green (2009).

  18. Some clarification is needed. The study (Gabielkov et al. 2016, §2.3) found that 59% of the links (to news sites) shared on Twitter are never clicked after they have been shared. The media have repeatedly misreported this result; for instance, a viral article by Caitlin Dewey (Washington Post) titles “6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new, depressing study says”. Both the headline and the article are inaccurate, since the figure identified by Gabielkov and colleagues merely indicates that 59% of the links posted on Twitter remain ‘silent’, or unclicked. That being noted, since several of these unclicked links get retweeted, we can deduce that a subset of that 59% has been retweeted without having been read. Personal communication with the authors revealed that they estimate that subset to be 15% of the total traffic: in other words, it is only 15% of retweets (of news links, excluding retweets by bots) that aren’t read before being shared.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Deborah Mühlebach, Jennifer Saul, Josep Macià, Don Fallis, Josie McQuillan, Marina Sbisà, Maciej Witek and Patrick Connolly for helpful comments on earlier versions of this draft. This paper has been presented at the Perspective on Speech as Action workshop at the University of Trieste, the National Meeting of the Italian Society for Philosophy of Language at the University of Cagliari, the Philosophy of language seminar at the University of Sheffield, and the JeSyP 2019 workshop at the University of Jena. I am grateful to the audiences of all these events for insightful discussion of this work.

Funding

Funding was provided by Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades (Grant No. FFI2016-80636-P, AEI/FEDER, UE).

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Marsili, N. Retweeting: its linguistic and epistemic value. Synthese 198, 10457–10483 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02731-y

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Keywords

  • Online communication
  • Retweeting
  • Speech act theory
  • Quotation
  • Social epistemology