Twitter has taken the center and pushed it to the margins, while the extremists roll in to occupy the empty space
First, American politics was overtaken by the blogs. I didn’t like them much, either. Until the first couple years of this century, the bulk of serious political discourse resided in print-on-paper (and primitively digital) newspapers and magazines, where a chin-pulling opinionator might feel free to spout off for 750 words – an average op-ed length – or compose a roomy feature in an “intellectual magazine” running on (and on) for half a dozen pages or more.
But by 2002, thanks to the depredations of video games and 50 years of ubiquitous television-watching, the national attention span had shrunk to the point that an op-ed seemed as intimidating as an unopened copy of Middlemarch. And as for anything more demanding than an op-ed – like those thumb-suckers in the New Republic or the Weekly Standard – forget about it. Utterly hopeless. You might as well ask the reader to wade through the Tale of Genji… in ancient Japanese.
And so, with the bottomless maw of the World Wide Web yawning before us, the blog was born. Blogs encouraged interactivity, constituting the first, rudimentary form of social media to invade politics. Bloggers and their yammering audiences specialized in “hot takes” – blunt, incendiary, often fact-free expressions of opinions scrubbed of all nuance and qualification and dropped onto the Internet with all the evident authority of a papal bull, if papal bulls ran to a maximum of three paragraphs. Not for the blogger was the rehearsal of a chain of logic, the marshaling of facts, the adducing of argument and counterargument and rebuttal that you were once led to expect (and, it’s true, often failed to find) in political polemics. A blog post was pure assertion. Even better, anybody could earn the title of “blogger” without having to be screened by, prove talent to, or gain credentials from employers, editors, fact-checkers, or even readers.
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As it happened, the age of the blog was almost as short-lived as a blog post. After a few years of reading blogs, the national attention span (and I’m thinking in particular of the attention span of people who follow politics for a living or as a serious hobby) had shrunk to such an extent that Twitter became possible – indeed, necessary, and eventually indispensable. By contrast, blogs seemed so gabby – yap, yap, yap. When it went online in 2006, Twitter wouldn’t allow a post longer than 140 characters… not words, characters. The tweet limit was doubled to 280 characters several years later, and many Twitter users objected to the move. Expanding the permissible length of tweets struck them as an insult – a stumbling block to the steady, uninterrupted advance of the cause of human stupidity. (It didn’t make much difference one way or the other.)
Twitter had a particular appeal to the oversharers among us, people who think they can add to the sum total of human happiness by showing strangers photos of their half-eaten bowls of pad thai or letting everyone know how terrible service is at the post office right this minute. A Twitter landmark that set the tone for much of what was to follow occurred in 2010, when a reporter for the website Mediaite “live-tweeted” his own heart attack. “I gotta be me,” he actually tweeted, mid-infarction. “Livetweeting my own heart attack. Beat that!”
No one has beaten that, as far as I know. Back in the Blog Age, the lag time between the moment a blogger put his passing thought into words and its appearance on everyone else’s screen could last several minutes. As we entered the Twitter Age, such a delay was deemed simply intolerable. Twitter was more or less instantaneous. What remained of the filter between composition (I use the term loosely) and publication vanished altogether… Self-censorship – what used to be called discretion and tact – seemed to run contrary to the animating spirit of Twitter. The technology bred a contagion among political commentators that resembles a kind of epidemic of Tourette’s Syndrome. But it’s complicated… On the one hand, Twitter tempts them to express every thought that passes through what’s left of their minds. On the other hand, the constraints of the technology and its immediacy ensure that no thought can be fully ventilated, placed in a larger context, and supported with argument and evidence. It’s lose-lose!
On the one hand, Twitter tempts them to express every thought that passes through what’s left of their minds.
On the other hand, the constraints of the technology and its immediacy ensure that no thought can be fully ventilated, placed in a larger context, and supported with argument and evidence. It’s lose-lose!
And the list of losers stretches as far as the eye can see – far longer than even 280 characters. I don’t really regret the loss of many of the careers whose abrupt termination Twitter has made possible, thanks to the oversharing of the Twits themselves. Roseanne Barr, we can hope, is well and truly finished after releasing a tweet that even some of her fans (yes! she had fans!) delicately called “racial.” A hitherto obscure – only 170 Twitter followers – public relations executive named Justine Sacco became internationally famous for posting a “jokey” tweet about AIDS as she embarked on a trip to South Africa. Sacco posted the tweet as her flight took off from London, and by the time she landed in Cape Town 12 hours later, she and her tasteless tweet stood as the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter worldwide. She had plenty of time to enjoy Cape Town as her (former) employer acceded to the tens of thousands of Twits demanding her firing. And no roll call of Twitter perps and victims would be complete without the name of Anthony Weiner, who tweeted pictures of his… I’m not even going to type the word. (It begins with a “w.”) As punishment, he lost his chance to become mayor of New York. That seems too kind a fate for him. The 15 months he served in jail are a little more like it.
But of course, we are all in one sense victims of Twitter. We can readily see this through the career of one of Twitter’s “winners,” Donald Trump, who arguably owes his victorious presidential campaign in 2016 to the attention-grabbing effects of Twitter and other social media. There are sound reasons why Trump likes Twitter and relies on it so heavily. He’s correct when he says it offers him a direct line of communication with his followers and the general public without having to run the gauntlet of a news media that is obsessively hostile to him. But surely another reason Trump likes Twitter is the same reason why all the other Twits do: It allows instant gratification. By some accounts, including his own, Twitter constitutes the principal form of presidential entertainment not named Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson.
He is particularly fond of the counter on the screen that shows him how many people are discussing his tweets… Like the rest of Twitter, the counter runs in real-time. “I used to watch it like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty,” Trump told a White House gathering of his social media allies. “Remember when I said somebody was spying on me? [He was referring to his accusation that President Obama had ordered a wiretap on his phone.] That was like a rocket.”
Rocket-like though it may have been, the tweet wasn’t true, and this points up another… uh… weakness of the world that Twitter is creating. Its power to move misinformation is prodigious, far outstripping its power to inform or enlighten. To the untutored and gullible, simply by virtue of being published, a tweet can look as authoritative as a story on the front page of the New York Times (which has its own troubles spreading misinformation). This is a problem for social media generally, of course, from Pinterest to Instagram to the Russian intelligence agencies’ favorite outlet, Facebook. What techno-utopians once touted as the great revolutionary advance of social media – that it would flatten every barrier to entry in the worldwide marketplace of communication and ideas – may also prove to be its undoing, as Fake News, by fits and starts, slowly pushes out the real thing, in a perverse expression of Gresham’s law.
Given the tone of bitterness and rancor it encourages, and its ongoing failure to distinguish real news from bogus propaganda, Twitter, along with other social media, is increasingly the sandbox of cranks, hysterics, and preening exhibitionists. Sure, Twitter has the potential to place before a user a much wider variety of views than we might otherwise see. And yet, as a pair of sociologists who have taken on the sad duty of cataloguing the evolution of online controversies put it, “Twitter is exposing people to multiple diverse points of view but … the medium is insufficient for reasoned discourse and debate, instead privileging haste and emotion.” (I first heard about this study in The Smallest Minority, an actual book with, like, pages and everything, by the writer and reformed Twitter user Kevin Williamson.)
Here’s the biggest problem, though… As Twitter continues its descent into pointless hysteria and turns the Internet into one big fever swamp, a sufficient number of people in authority continue in the delusion that what happens there tells us something about politics in the real – which is to say, non-Twitter – world. The delusion carries the danger of being actualized and self-fulfilling. Consider the case of the field of Democratic presidential candidates. Most of them – or their operatives – act as though the enthusiasms and half-baked prejudices they see expressed on Twitter somehow reflect the views of normal Democrats. Polls show that this simply isn’t true – Democratic voters, even in primaries, are more mainstream than their counterparts on Twitter. Abolishing ICE, prosecuting Trump, opening borders, eliminating private health insurance: Democratic candidates take these as popular and winning policy positions because, at least in part, they saw ‘em on Twitter.
Such is the distorting power of social media. Politics has always been subject to misfires and misreadings of the popular mood… That’s why some candidates win and others lose. But Twitter has done something new. It has taken the center and pushed it to the margins, while the extremists roll in to fill the empty space and seize the nation’s attention. Most of us find politics revolting as a result. I suppose it’s possible that politics was like this all along, and it took a new technology to expose the plain truth. If that’s the case, watch for the Luddite party to make a long-overdue comeback.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and was one of the founding editors of The Weekly Standard.