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Maybe Twitter *Is* Real Life

If anything, political Twitter is underrated

Credit: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

“Twitter is not real life” is such an overused critique of modern politics that it’s become a cliché.

The latest invocation arose amid chatter to impeach President Donald Trump. Impeachment opponents warn that support on Twitter for Democrats to move forward with their investigation does not equal support from voters. Not long before that, Nate Silver and other pollsters were cautioning against following Twitter sentiment rather than public opinion research, and center-left pundits such as Jonathan Chait were lamenting Democrats’ leftward shift as an appeasement of vocal Twitter activists. Popular YouTuber Dave Rubin uses “Twitter is not real life” as his profile tagline (on Twitter, of course).

The conventional wisdom is that political Twitter’s influence is limited — that tweets are ephemeral, most Twitter controversies don’t matter (except on Twitter), and the importance of Twitter discourse is overrated.

To be sure, people on Twitter — particularly those who are active on “political Twitter” — are not a representative cross-section of Americans. Only 22% of U.S. adults use the platform. About 80% of tweets come from about 10% of the population, and a lot of that activity isn’t about politics.

But in that sense, nothing truly reflects “real life.” The office, church, school, and bar aren’t representative samples of the United States either. If you think a discussion shared within any of those local communities is the equivalent of a national poll, you’re wrong. But if you think what people say there doesn’t matter at all, you’re also wrong.

There’s a strong impulse to downplay the significance of talking heads who trend on Twitter. After all, the platform can be toxic, stupid, and mean. Few want to admit their beliefs are influenced by something like that, just like some people think they’re too smart to be duped by advertising.

But saying “Twitter is not real life” is a dodge. If anything, the influence of political Twitter is underrated.

Most of what ends up mattering in real-world politics mattered on Twitter first.

The media plays a huge role in making Twitter so influential. Every mainstream media outlet, political magazine, and commentary website relies on the platform to disseminate its content, which then gets shared and discussed. The employees of those outlets, in turn, engage with the platform, sharing their own ideas and looking to others for inspiration. This creates a feedback loop that skews what reporters, writers, and producers value as important or newsworthy.

The more a story or idea reverberates around Twitter, the more a writer and publication think it was successful (with the partial exception of articles that get attention because people want to criticize or mock them). And the more an article spreads on Twitter, the more likely other writers and publications will produce stories commenting on the perceived phenomena.

The commentary that ripples out from tweeted news items creates both a sense of public feedback and a narrative that media figures can’t help but notice. In January, an encounter near the Lincoln Memorial between high school boys wearing MAGA hats and a protesting Native American activist became a national controversy. It eventually led to death threats, temporary school closings, lawsuits, and a lot of anger. It never should have been a big story. No one died, no one was injured, no property was damaged. No famous person or public official was involved. But people argued about it on Twitter, reporters responded by delving into the event (and covering the Twitter commentary), bringing the story to people off Twitter while also feeding the controversy on Twitter. The platform effectively turned a largely uneventful encounter into a microcosm of national issues.

Some articles in traditional media even directly react to, criticize, or lament Twitter reactions. Famous op-ed writers publish pieces about Twitter commentary in the New York Times and other legacy publications. And those ignite more discussion on Twitter. As a result, a significant portion of political discourse — especially the discourse of powerful people in politics — is overlapping, intersecting feedback loops, all connected to Twitter.

A caveat is in order here. A lot of this commentary doesn’t matter. Political junkies — including professional media members, political operatives, and members of the public — enjoy novelty. They’ll often fixate on something new, and while it shows up in media coverage, it might not significantly influence public opinion.

A good example is Marianne Williamson. The self-help author and presidential candidate grabbed attention on Twitter with kooky performances at the first two Democratic primary debates. Praise from traditional media followed. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote “Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump.” In the New York Post, John Podhoretz called her the “breakout winner.” Similar declarations of success appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.

But this attention hasn’t translated into support from Democratic voters. RealClearPolitics national polling average has Williamson at 0.6%. Despite supposedly winning the first two debates, she failed to qualify for the third.

As Williamson’s candidacy shows, not everything that matters on Twitter matters off the platform. But most of what ends up mattering in real-world politics mattered on Twitter first.

One big driver of this is Donald Trump. The U.S. president is a human feedback loop. His tweets ignite a firestorm of commentary, praise, criticism, jokes, and interpretation — on Twitter, in print, and on television. He often tweets about his favorite TV shows, primarily Fox News, which in turn boosts the network’s message. And as Media Matters fellow Matthew Gertz shows, this cycle appears to have a real effect on Trump’s worldview.

The president even uses Twitter to make major policy changes. For example, in December 2018, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syria, surprising the Pentagon and U.S. allies and prompting the resignations of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS.

Twitter is now one of the political media’s main sources. And for political figures, it’s become a main method of public communication. Overlapping politician-followers-media feedback loops create the perception of influence, which creates real influence. If a lot of people believe someone’s important, they’re important.

There’s always been a national conversation, just as influential people will always spend a significant amount of time participating in and absorbing it. But thanks to Twitter, it’s faster, more interactive, more present. It’s easier to put down a newspaper, walk away from the television, or put off in-person conversations than it is to fully disconnect from your smartphone. Traditional information gatekeepers used to have much more control; now, access to information has been democratized.

Twitter is deeply embedded in politics, both domestic and international, and won’t be going anywhere. The 280-character limit and public nature lends itself well to press releases and quotations. The rapid and open interaction makes Twitter the platform of open debate, even as it makes a lot of that debate mean-spirited, performative, and unproductive. And networking effects mean it won’t face any real competition. It’s where everyone is, so if you want to be in the game, that’s where you need to be.

It’s a mistake to downplay the influence of political Twitter. Harsh criticism on the platform has led newspapers to change headlines, TV networks to cancel shows, and authors to cancel books. A single tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for demonstrators in Hong Kong set off an international controversy involving Chinese politics, free speech, and authoritarianism, putting billions of dollars in basketball and sports media revenue in jeopardy. It’s also turned politics into a bizarre circus. If you follow politics, this is obvious, and if you don’t, you can probably sense it. It’s incredibly polarizing and pervades more aspects of life.

A lot of that is Twitter’s fault. And it’s affecting you, even if you’ve never used the app. Journalists and political operatives spend a lot of their day on Twitter, and while media ethicists might tell them to stop, they’re not going to. They’re addicted to the dopamine rush of likes and retweets and the boredom cure of constantly updating commentary. But most important, they know that news appears on Twitter before anywhere else and can’t stand the idea of being out of the loop.

Twitter is reshaping the thinking of everyone who uses it. And since politicians, political operatives, and political media use the platform a lot, it’s reshaping politics for everyone, whether they use it or not.

And we still don’t fully appreciate how.

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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