In the wake of a tragedy like the attacks in Paris last week, you can expect to encounter certain kinds of things on Twitter and Facebook: somber tributes, breaking news stories, righteous videos that express your reactions. What you can also expect is that many of those things, all pegged to the same recent event, will be months — or even years — old.
In the days after the attacks, two stories rapidly began to circulate on Facebook: a 2014 video of Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan on CNN disputing comments made by comedian Bill Maher regarding ISIS and Islam, and a BBC news story from April of this year about Al Shabaab militants storming a Kenyan university, killing 147 people. Both the video and the news story have gone viral; last Sunday, the Kenya attack was the most-clicked article on the BBC website, garnering 10 million page views over two days — almost four times as many as when the story was originally published.
Now that social media is the dominant place for news to be reported, distributed, consumed, analyzed, and discussed, its odd relationship to time is becoming more and more apparent. The canonical example might be the ever-recurring death of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe: In March of this year, Twitter resounded with grief over Achebe’s death, reported in the the New York Times. The only problem: Achebe died on March 22, 2013, exactly two years prior, a date clearly stated in the article.
Joshua Benton at Harvard’s Nieman Lab tried to track down the originator of the 2015 redux, to no avail. But he offered up some theories about why it popped up again. Benton suggests that social media is fundamentally “unstuck in time” — not just because old stories are being shared by mistake, but because the endless space of the internet allows Facebook and other publishers to resurrect old stories hoping for renewed interest and clicks. “The stream metaphor of Twitter and Facebook drops the illusion of chronology,” he wrote, “and its relentless flow makes it inevitable that we’ll miss things along the way.”
But it’s not just that social media finds time mostly irrelevant. It’s that we do, too. Aslan’s stirring defense of Muslims may have been recorded in response to a Maher comment from last year, but it remains relevant. The anti-Muslim argument remains the same, making Aslan’s impassioned retort just as applicable. Why does it matter that it’s a few months old? While it is likely that many who shared the video last week thought it was new, its resurfacing this week could only have happened from others remembering it and finding renewed relevance in its message.
This was, in fact, one of the reasons that the BBC article about Kenya resurfaced so quickly. It seems to have gotten its initial bump from people who, with full knowledge of its date, wanted to make the point that Western media wasn’t covering non-Western countries as prominently as they were Paris. But then, of course, it was picked up by people who weren’t aware that it was months old.
In this sense, the temporality of social media seems odd only because of its multiple uses. When we think of Twitter or Facebook as newswires — sources of new information — it becomes odd to see old or out-of-date content. But when they’re thought of as places for discussion and gathering, it makes perfect sense that old-but-still-relevant information and arguments would be shared — as they often are in offline discussion. As Facebook seeks to mediate all online behavior, it will have increasing difficulty adequately communicating to people the contexts of each piece of content: Is this a piece of news? A remembered argument? Both? Neither?
This is, ultimately, why you can always expect to see resurrected zombie content lumbering across your feeds: Because Facebook and Twitter now mediate your relationship to news, not newspapers or magazines. As the BBC itself pointed out, the Kenya shooting was written about, and often — but that’s not the same thing as people seeing it. As internet users, we exist in echo chambers, where what we see reflects the interests and beliefs we already hold. With the aid of social-media platforms, we create echo chambers for ourselves, based on who we choose to friend and follow, the links we click on, what we choose to read. It’s a game of association, based on who we associate with online, as well as the thematic associations between types of content. News agencies and aggregators alike vie for access to our echo chambers, with inevitable overlap, delays, and resurrections of content. Republishing old stories is part of the landscape and, when it comes to social media, considered crucial to success.
News organizations are no longer the masters of their own distribution; over half of Facebook and Twitter users get their news from those platforms, a percentage that’s only increasing. Digital media doesn’t deteriorate; the physical cues that might help a reader immediately figure out the age of a given story are gone. This can help those news organizations reach a wider audience, but it also means that each article or video is now forced to be a stand-alone unit of consumable content, rather than one component of an entire newspaper or magazine. Stripped of context, stories exist eternally, forever available, forever relevant. What’s really at stake isn’t social media’s relationship to time — it’s news’ relationship to it.