It happens like clockwork: Something cataclysmic or unexpected occurs and we all rush online to read the hot takes.
We’re talking big news events here ― “Mass Attentional Events,” as tech journalist Charlie Warzel calls them: That one weird night in October 2020 when Trump tested positive for COVID. Or Russia invading Ukraine last month, dramatically raising the threat of nuclear war. Or Will Smith slapping Chris Rock across the head at the Oscars after Rock joked about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Before you have a chance to process the event, you’re on Twitter doing a cursory read of all the strident opinions already coalescing on “your side.”
“Should I say something, too?” you wonder. Sure, why not? You come up with something smart-sounding or funny enough, then hit “send.”
“This is edgy,” you think before a little self-doubt starts to creep in. “Maybe a little too edgy? But I only have 238 followers. I can always delete it.”
Then comes that sharp pang of regret and self-reproach.
“Oh, crap, my 238 followers include my boss ... and she just viewed my story.”
Sometimes, that hot take just isn’t worth it. (Especially considering the number of people have who have been fired over bad tweets.) In an era of hyper-connectivity and Extremely Online people, there’s something refreshing ― even noble ― about the person who sits it out and doesn’t post something (or at least takes a beat to process the news before weighing in).
“I tell people: Before firing off a ‘hot take’ on a topic, pause, take a deep breath, and determine whether your comments are likely to create any problems or controversies,” said Evan Nierman, the CEO of Red Banyan, a global crisis communications firm and author of “Crisis Averted: PR Strategies to Protect Your Reputation and the Bottom Line.”
While we’re not suggesting you self-censor, we are imploring people to be a little more thoughtful about what they tweet in the heat of the moment.
At the very least, Nierman suggests asking yourself one question before hitting send: “Will these thoughts reflect well on me, and would I be comfortable with my quote appearing on the front page of a global newspaper? If not, then don’t post the comment.”
“Ask yourself: Will these thoughts reflect well on you, and would you be comfortable with your quotes appearing on the front page of a global newspaper? If not, then don’t post the comment.”
That’s good, standard advice ― please save it in your Notes app or something! But we figured we’d dig a little deeper into the psychology behind why we feel compelled to weigh in on nearly everything these days. And since self-censorship isn’t the goal, we’ll also explore how to know if your commentary is actually worth posting, with the help of PR people who’ve worked on crisis management and who deal with people and companies tweeting ill-advised things all the time.
Why do we rush to comment on breaking news or big celebrity gossip?
Simply put, we post because we are social creatures. Opinionated social creatures who want to contact, commiserate and commune with other people using the biggest, baddest megaphone most of us have ever possessed: a Twitter account. (Or Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook ― pick your poison.)
“We want to feel like part of the tribe ― to get a word in and feel intelligent and either support or criticize others inside or outside our tribe,” said Michael Toebe, a reputation consultant and the founder of Reputation Quality.
“We’re emotional beings with impulses and when we are triggered by a story we see, the conditions become ripe, so to speak, for the hot take,” he told HuffPost. “Sending out comments, behind a piece of technology, feels safe and we become confident ― overconfident, even.”
Toebe thinks bad hot takes are a near-perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect — that’s the tendency for the least competent or well-versed in a subject to overestimate their skills the most.
If you weigh in with too misguided of a take, you might get ratioed to hell and back. (Your mentions page will be a mess.) You may even become Twitter’s Main Character of the day. (As the internet axiom goes, “Each day on Twitter, there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”)
Too many of us like to think we’re experts who “do their own research.”
Just because you have a platform like Instagram or Twitter doesn’t mean it’s essential for you to weigh in on every breaking news item, said Jane Austin, the CEO and founder of independent public relations and content company Persuasion Communications, which has offices in New York, London and Paris.
“There’s almost a contagion effect online with commenting,” she said. “People point fingers and say something for the sake of it, in the hope of getting their hands on that sweet, sweet validation of likes, or the holy grail: going viral.”
Expertise becomes irrelevant once the good and bad takes, the parody takes and the memes start circulating and get amplified by retweets.
Conversations become less and less nuanced, said Kris Ruby, the CEO of Ruby Media Group, a public relations agency in New York.
“Social media has created a flattened hierarchy where everyone’s opinion is treated the same,” Ruby said. “This is widely problematic because there is no structure to what opinions we should listen to and what opinions we need to filter out during a crisis.”
For instance, Ruby said, if we’re heading into a world war, hearing from military experts, foreign affairs officials, government officials and former White House administration officials would be helpful to inform your personal opinion on a topic.
“The problem becomes that everyone on social media believes their opinion is equivalent to [that of] a military expert, even if they have never served a day in the military,” she said. “This further perpetuates the problem leading to non-experts doling out expert-level advice.”
We have low follower counts and underestimate the potential consequences of our tweets or Instagram Stories.
With great follower counts comes great responsibility. But don’t think you’re untouchable or impervious to repercussions just because you only have a 14-follower count; a future boss could come across your insensitive tweets and rule you out for the role. (Think of how Kevin Hart lost his Oscar hosting gig after his old homophobic tweets resurfaced.)
If you’re single, a Hinge match may do some sleuthing, discover your old Twitter page, and not find your tweets from your frat boy college days all that endearing.
What’s wrong about “centering” ourselves in the conversation?
Inevitably, the hot takes are followed by other hot takes, these from people chastising others for “centering themselves” in a conversation they know little about.
“Westerners, Please Stop With The Memes And Hot Takes On The Ukraine Crisis,” guest writer Charlotte Colombo wrote on HuffPost as Twitter was inundated with Zelenskyy thirst tweets and out-of-depth takes from random people on the threat of nuclear war or the concept of no-fly zones.
“To White People Using Will Smith to Self-Victimize: It’s Not About You,” writer Stitch wrote in Teen Vogue. (After The Slap at the Oscars, many people tweeted that Smith’s comment that “love will make you do crazy things” in his Oscar acceptance speech was the same kind of language domestic abusers use to condone their behavior.)
Others took umbrage at tweets and a think piece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that essentially said, “Jada is a strong, powerful woman, she can take care of herself.” That didn’t go over well with Black women in America who’ve never felt protected in this country and have had to contend with the “Strong Black woman” trope for far too long.
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of deleted tweets the morning after the Oscars from people who didn’t understand the undertones and context of the moment.
What these examples show is that some things ― hell, most things ― are more nuanced, thorny and complicated than a 140-character tweet can ever convey. When a story is not about you, it’s OK to sit that one out.
What should you do instead of hastily tweeting?
Instead of rushing to post, rush to read and understand.
Don’t be like the ladies of “The View:” When presented with a hot topic in the news, take the time to educate yourself and ask questions rather than add to the chaos, said Jenna Wigman, the vice president and a partner at Press Kitchen, a PR agency based in Santa Monica and New York.
“Personally, I enjoy healthy debate and discourse with people on timely topics, but I don’t think the internet is an environment in which such discussions can thrive,” Wigman told HuffPost. “When I have questions, I seek out either new sources or friends who are more knowledgable on the subject. Then I take the time to form my own opinions once I have more information.”
Instead of rushing to post, rush to read, Wigman said ― and not just from news outlets and media influencers who will further cement your viewpoints. To really understand, you generally have to step out of the comfort of your political echo chamber.
“Time will always be kind to a proclamation of, ‘I don’t know,’ rather than a fiery opinion based more on an eagerness to be first, not right,” she said.
Send whatever you’re thinking of tweeting to your friend group chat instead.
For the love of God, utilize those group chats! Your friends will react far more kindly to the dumb (and smart!) things you say than the 330 million users on Twitter you’re considering spouting off to.
Consider yourself your own personal PR team.
Unfortunately, if you tweet something that gets you close to being “canceled,” you won’t be able to afford a crisis management team like the Chrissy Teigens of the world. But what you can do is act as your own PR representative before things get out of hand.
“Think of it from a PR perspective: What will it do for you personally, your online ‘brand,’ if you share this thought or joke?” Austin said.
“Will it enhance your personal brand, or will you be having to indulge in damage limitation afterwards?” she asked.
Ask yourself: Am I adding any value here? How am I moving the conversation forward?
When is something good to post? The short answer is when it’s adding value to a timely conversation. Wigman admits it can be tough to objectively examine if your perspective actually adds value.
“But I think if you’re coming from an expert POV on the given topic, you should feel more comfortable bringing an opinion backed by facts to the table,” she said. “Still, it’s always wise to take a beat and listen first.”
Bottom line: Think, and think hard, before you tweet.
“I know I’ve typed something out on my phone or laptop in the past and then realized it just wasn’t good enough or was, to be honest, wrong, and I didn’t hit enter or tweet or whatever to publish,” Toebe said. “In this climate, you have to think of the risk now more than ever if you value your future well-being.”