Going Viral: How Philip Lewis Turned His Twitter Popularity Into a Journalism Career

The journalist talks to Complex about using his social media virality to serve others during a time when media literacy is needed.


This is Going Viral: A space where the internet’s biggest stars share what it’s like to find fame and success online.

Philip Lewis built a journalism career for himself after going viral. 

The journalist has amassed a large following on Twitter by becoming a trusted and reliable source of news. While there has been an ongoing war against journalism and journalists that has caused people to question the news and headlines they come across, Lewis’ devotion to keeping people informed has made him stand out amid the noise. 

Lewis built his following by sharing articles and news stories ranging from politics to celebrities to social justice that people retweet and reshare by the thousands. Lewis has become a speedy voice in journalism that people depend on, and even other media outlets, rely on him when it comes to discovering breaking, cultural and personal interest stories. 

Lewis is currently a senior editor at the HuffPost (before that role, he was also a freelance editor at Complex.) His job requires him to stay on top of the news, while his personal social pages give him the freedom to spotlight smaller important stories that may not get the exposure they need. Choosing what to share, and how, is key in ensuring people see him as a trustworthy, respectable source for news. 

“It's my job in particular as a Black journalist to cut through a lot of that noise and just show you what's going on. Obviously, I can't get to everything, but I try to,” Lewis tells Complex. “The whole point of it is not to be perfect. The point is just to continue to build that credibility and that's just something that comes over time. I'm really happy that I've been able to position myself in that way.”

It all started when he was a student at Michigan State University. As part of the Black Student Alliance, he helped create the hashtag #MSUBlackUnity to communicate updates to their fellow classmates during a moment of racial tension at their school. That’s when Lewis, a sociology major, realized the power and the reach of social media. After that, he continued gaining followers organically and after a short stint as a teacher post-graduation, he realized media and journalism were his calling. 

#msublackunity !

— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) September 29, 2011
Twitter: @Phil_Lewis_

He currently has more than 300,000 Twitter followers and 23,000 on Instagram. Any article Lewis shares on Twitter has the potential to go viral. Thousands of people are bound to share and click on the stories he amplifies, which are usually from a variety of sources, and his engagement with an article can have a positive impact not only on his loyal followers but on the people writing them as well.

Lewis has used going viral to do good, not only for himself but to serve others during a time when media literacy is needed. He hopped on a call with Complex to talk about his journey, what inspired him to go down this path, his relationship with Twitter post-Elon Musk, and how he chooses the articles and stories he features. Read our conversation with him below. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

People in a Kentucky town found KKK flyers dropped on their front lawns and driveways in multiple neighborhoods https://t.co/df8u07FNJW pic.twitter.com/akgUm3alBw

— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) June 12, 2023
Twitter: @Phil_Lewis_

Can you talk to me a little bit about your relationship with Twitter and social media?
I've been using Twitter for a while. I actually had an account before my current one. When I was in college, I was involved in the Black Student Alliance, a Black student union. It's an organization on campus that fights for Black issues. When I was on campus, I believe this was my sophomore year, there was a student who lived in one of our dorms, and on the whiteboard that was on her door, somebody wrote a racial slur.

The Black Student Alliance came together and figured out a way to help support her. That blew up into a platform that we called the Black MSU Unity Movement. So, through that platform we created a hashtag before Black Lives Matter, before all of these other things. It was a very hyper-local, it really didn't obviously blow up because nobody was using Twitter in that way back then. Not for that really.

Do you remember what the hashtag was?
It was #MSUBlackUnityMovement or something like that. The hashtag, we used it to communicate with other people on campus. At the time, I was mostly using [Twitter] for promoting parties and just talking with my friends. I had never thought to use it as an organizing tool. We were using it to spread awareness about what happened to the student. We caught the attention of our campus administration and the local news outlets that wrote about it at the time. It wasn't just me that came up with this hashtag, it was all of us who came together.

From there I decided to keep using Twitter to highlight things that I thought were interesting or newsworthy. I just kept going from there. I didn't go to school for journalism. I'm a sociology major. I've never taken a journalism class before in my life or anything like that. I've always had an affinity toward reading, writing, so I ended up teaching first for a bit when I left college. I wasn't very good at it, so I ended up applying for a bunch of different internships and fellowships [for] social media roles and journalism roles because a friend of mine said, "You're active online, you have 30,000 followers and you're a teacher? Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you should do something with the following you have.” This is around the time when Vine was really big and influencers were starting to become a real thing. 

Do you think that switch had anything to do with the experience you had in college with Twitter and the hashtag you created? 
Well, I think it was only loosely connected. I didn't make that connection until recently. That laid the foundation for me to do what I'm doing now, I think. When we came up with that hashtag, I started to realize that this is actually what Twitter can be used for instead of just silly memes and playing around. I ended up applying for a bunch of different internships and fellowships. I got rejected by pretty much all of them because they were like, "You have no clips, you have no journalism experience. Why would we do this?"

Huffington Post in 2015 took a chance on me, Amanda Terkel hired me. I remember speaking with her and she was just like, "Why do you want to do this? You don't really have the experience." But they took a chance on me because I had a following of people who were interested in the news I was sharing. When you do an internship or fellowship, you shouldn't already necessarily have the experience—you should be willing to learn while you're on internships. That's why I go so hard for internships because we need to be able to teach the next generation. 

Especially for those that don't have connections in the industry, and especially minorities who might not have people to guide them. 
They're absolutely important. Honestly, if it wasn't for Twitter and that internship, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I wouldn't be in journalism. So, I took the internship, I drove from Detroit all the way to DC and was like, "OK, well this is it. Let me just figure it out." It was a very sharp learning curve because I had to learn everything about how to become a journalist on the job during the middle of the Trump campaign. This was September 2015.

That's some great training, though. 
It was entertaining. My journalism career has always been a whirlwind ever since. From literally my first story, all the way up until now, it's been a whirlwind. I know some journalists talk about the good old days or the days before it just went to craziness or whatever—it's never been like that for me.

Do you remember what your first article was?
Yeah. Oh my goodness. It was about human rights. It was a protest in the middle of Lafayette Park in Lafayette Square in DC and it was about human rights. That was my very first story for HuffPost. I went out with another reporter who just showed me how you introduce yourself and how to talk with people and how to record. Then they helped me with the story.

Just to get the timeline right, after you interned at HuffPost, have you been there since or did you go to other outlets?
Yeah, the internship ended in 2015 and I didn't know what I was going to do, but Amanda had hooked me up with a position at Mic.com. I don't even know if Mic is still around [Ed.note: It’s not.], but Mic.com in New York. So I moved to New York and I was an SEO writer, writing seven to 10 stories a day about whatever SEO thing was trending for the day. 

I remember one time I was writing three stories about Beyonce's Lemonade diet or something. It was terrible. It's the content farm type of stuff. That’s what I was doing. I was promoted to programming editor pretty quickly while I was there. I was doing a lot of similar things to what I'm doing now, actually. Then at the end of 2016, I moved back to DC because the current position I'm in opened up and I moved back here and I've been in here ever since.

Oh, that's awesome. When you say you had 30,000 followers at the time, were those just followers you got organically?
Yeah, so if you remember the time of trending topics, they were very fun to participate in. I was actually being aggregated quite a bit. I would find my tweets in Complex, XXL, or other outlets that were doing roundups like Buzzfeed. So, I would find my tweets from just silly trending topics here and there all the time. That's when I was like, "Oh, OK, if they're using my tweets, maybe I can write these." 

That was when I was thinking about the career that I wanted to take. People found each other through hashtags and through trending topics a lot easier back then. It was much easier to grow an audience as opposed to today where it's not quite the same. I would say that it's all organic. I've never forced anybody on me or anything like that. It pretty much is just all growing through the things that I like to share.

A woman who got a text from her husband indicating he was taken hostage said Colorado police didn't respond when she called 911 until after he was killed

https://t.co/52BFGi40tj pic.twitter.com/SIqC4XKQyL

— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) June 10, 2023

How do you choose which articles you share with your followers on Twitter?There's usually a couple of things that I'm thinking about. Is the story underrepresented? Has it been shared in other places? Who's involved in the story? I do sometimes think about the potential of virality. So, I'm thinking about, is this a story that resonates with a wide group of people? If it isn't, can I word it or phrase it or do something on Twitter?

Whether that's sharing a particular photo or sharing a piece from the graph or sharing anything from it to where most newsrooms will share their headline or whatever of the story in the article, that's fine. Usually, I like to click through, I like to read and I like to see what is the most important part of the story that people need to see. That's the most important part because people ask me. 

I have a modest amount of followers, but I tend to outperform outlets and pages with millions of followers because they're not quite doing what I'm doing with them. So I'm thinking about, is the story being shared with someone? Is the story underrepresented? Does it have a human rights angle? Does it have a social justice angle? Is this a story that people might not know about any other way? I'm usually looking at that. There are so many stories that I don't always get to share. I can't get to every story. So, there's quite a lot happening. I try to think about what people need to see the most in my mind.

How do you stay so on top of the news as they come? You are doing this on Twitter, but you are also doing this for work, for a living. So balancing the two, how do you do that?
Well, it is a part of my job. Being a front-page editor means you see a lot of news because you have to keep the front page fresh and they have to keep it up to date. So, a lot of the stories I see come through down the pipe. Obviously, I get a million notifications, but I tend to try to prioritize what I think is important. I get notifications from outlets that people might not even think about. Then I use other programs and platforms to see what's going on, what I need to keep up with because it actually is a part of my job. Something that I enjoy doing because I enjoy keeping people up to date.

Whenever you share a story, it performs really well. Have you ever heard from a specific outlet asking you to share their stories? And do you think about how much you're actually helping those publications?
Yeah. Well, there are two things about that. A lot of local outlets and local reporters, local to whatever community they're in, will ask me to share their stories because it is hard to get their stories out there. I love to do that because obviously at the national level, I think what people don't realize is that we're looking at those local stories. I'm like, "Yes, please send me stories, and let's see what actually might work." It's a symbiotic relationship. 

I'll read some story that's happening in Long Island, New York but it's a story that might have national implications or it might be a story that people might be thinking about. So, I love when local outlets send me something because I'm like, "OK, I can share this and I'm sure people who follow me are interested in this." That does happen. 
On the other hand, there are a number of large accounts that post news, Say Cheese, Pop Crave, and places like that. Some have told me this and some haven't but I know they do, they follow me and they'll see what I'm posting and then they'll post it. So it's a whole ecosystem of news that's being shared. That all comes from my page. So, I do recognize that. What I try to do the most is I try to always source and cite. 

Whatever link I'm sharing or whatever news I'm sharing, I try to always post a link to wherever it is [from] because I think it's important for people to read it. That's my only thing, read the article that I'm sharing. I'm really not just sharing anything just to share it. I'm just like, you should also read the article and actually become informed about what's going on.

A spokesperson at Twitter tells @HuffPost senior front page editor @Phil_Lewis_ that the platform “did not take any enforcement action” on Nicki Minaj's account after the rapper claimed she was locked due to tweeting her reservations about the COVID-19 vaccine. pic.twitter.com/gk5LVgOTVF

— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) September 16, 2021

People have a hard time trusting certain sources. You've done such a good job at building that level of respect and credibility with your followers that they trust what you share. How does that make you feel to know that you're using your judgment and knowledge to help other people be more educated and more aware of what's going on in the world?
Well, I'm really glad to hear it. I love when people come up to me and be like, "Yeah, I saw what you posted." I appreciate it because it's just crucial as you can see nowadays. There's just so much stuff online. There's so much noise. I think that it's my job in particular as a Black journalist, to cut through a lot of that noise and just show you, here's what's going on. Obviously, I can't get to get to everything, but I try to. It's not just that I can't get to everything. There are sometimes where I don't quite get something or there can be moments where maybe I didn't quite get this correct.

The whole point of it is not to be perfect. The point is just to continue to build that credibility and that's just something that comes over time. I'm really happy that I've been able to position myself in that way where there's just so much going on. It's like, "OK, well I know if I come to him, at least I know that this is probably true. This is likely.” Or at least if I don't think that this is right, I can at least read for myself.

The Tyler Perry buying BET “report” is not a largely consequential thing but it is worth pointing out what separates news outlets from blogs and the like: corrections

— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) June 13, 2023

It's a little trickier because of the verification issue on Twitter. A lot of people decided to buy Twitter Blue. Why have you decided to not continue being verified? Do you think that has changed the way people interact with you on Twitter and what you post?
I haven't noticed a change really. So, I will say, I'm on the fence about the verification. I was considering it. I think the problem for me is it's not necessarily anything about Twitter Blue, I'm not an anti-Twitter Blue person because I understand that there are some reasons that people get it. I know some people who get it because they like some of the features as far as there's better moderation on it. I'm not 100 percent sure. Twitter is such a volatile platform now that I don't feel comfortable necessarily linking my credit cards with it or anything like that.

That's my big thing. I don't want to pay for this thing and it just craps out. So, it's really more my thing. If there was some way to maybe really accurately say that this is a safe platform to link my actual funds to, then I might do that. It doesn't seem like that to me. So, I'm foregoing it for now. I think it could be useful in some ways. I know a lot of tech journalists who have decided to just keep with it because they're actually using it in that capacity. For me, I'm OK with it right now.

Does it make you nervous that people keep saying, "Oh, Twitter's over, Twitter's over” or do you feel like your career will go on regardless of Twitter?
I did think it was funny. I did and I participated in the "Twitter's over" jokes because I thought they were funny. I never really thought Twitter was going anywhere in that way. I decided that I was going to stay on it because I know people still rely on me for that. So, I'll be on it until the lights go out. I never necessarily thought that was a thing that was going to happen because this is—not that it's too big to fail—but this it's a large social media platform that has its typicals in every media and politics and all these things.

I never thought it was just going to go away after a day. If it does go away, it'll be some time down the line. I'm not nervous about that because I've built an established career at this point. I've been in the field for a while now. I just would hate for people not to be able to find my work or things that I cover if Twitter disappears. I never thought that it was just going to disappear. That's not something I thought was going to happen. I still don't think that's going to happen. It's going to be around. It is just a question of, in what way?

Susan Lorincz, a white woman accused of shooting and killing Ajike Owens, a Black mother of 4, has been arrested

She is charged with manslaughter with a firearm, culpable negligence, battery and two counts of assault https://t.co/1N8Sf4QJeJ pic.twitter.com/b1Q1ioWqM3

— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) June 7, 2023
Twitter: @Phil_Lewis_

Do you find yourself trying to also cater to your followers there or trying to do TikToks or anything else outside of Twitter, just in case?
Yeah. Well, I like to try to experiment with other platforms. So, I am on Instagram and Facebook and TikTok. I just really recently started TikTok stuff. Really just to experiment with it, I'm not too concerned about where Twitter is going right at this moment. I do like to experiment with other platforms just to see how people consume news on other platforms. I've created a Substack, I have a newsletter that is pretty active and so I'm just experimenting with different social media platforms as they pop up because I feel like there's a new one all the time. 

I'm on Bluesky and Spoutible and all these other platforms just because I think the most important thing is to get the news where the people are. So whether that's email, that's Substack. If it's a whole new Twitter clone, maybe Bluesky or Spoutible, or if it's visual, let me try TikTok. I just want to try to stay with the flow and see where people are going.

You said you were a sociology major. Did you ever think that social media was going to be the place where you found and built a career in journalism?
No, I really did not know where this field was. I didn't feel like a real journalist until a couple of years ago. I never would've been able to imagine this is what my life or career would've been like. So the short answer is just no. I love what I do. I love this field. I love keeping people informed and sharing these stories because it really does have real-world consequences. People who've reached out to me and said, I've been able to do X, Y, and Z because of a story that you shared or lawyers and others.

I shared a link to a college fair and this woman reached out to me a year later and she was like, "Yeah, I just want you to know that the college fair that you shared, my little cousin went and got a full-ride scholarship." So things like that, it's just great. That's just one example. There are people who I never would've known about, this protest or this incident or whatever if it wasn't for their post. So, that's what I try to keep in mind.

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