“When you’re on Twitter, every controversy feels like it’s at the same level of importance,” one influential Democratic strategist told me. Over time, he found it more and more difficult to tune Twitter out: “People whose perception of reality is shaped by Twitter live in a different world and a different country than those off Twitter.” (I granted the strategist anonymity in exchange for candor.)
If elected representatives treat Twitter as representative of public opinion, they will fail to be responsive to the actual views of their constituents; political journalists will obsess over scandals and debates that don’t interest most of their readers; and political campaigns may lose eminently winnable elections.
President Trump is a case in point. He has rightly intuited that a significant portion of the American population is anxious about the influx of immigrants in the country illegally. But egged on by his die-hard fans—who ensure that his tweets about immigration are especially popular, with many of them attracting more than 100,000 likes—he has embraced policies, such as separating children from their parents, that are rejected by a vast majority of Americans.
Trump’s likely Democratic opponents fare no better. They are right about the fact that most Americans would like a strong public option for their health insurance. But, encouraged by activists on Twitter, some have brushed away concerns about what Medicare for All would mean for existing insurance plans—even though polls suggest that a clear majority of Americans do not want to lose what they already have.
To win the White House in 2020, presidential candidates will need to both win over swing voters whose views diverge from those of their party’s base and mobilize like-minded supporters who rarely think (much less opine) about politics. Paying less attention to Twitter may be the key to both.
America’s political class now lives in a bubble that has been made more, rather than less, impenetrable by the technological changes of the past years. Instead of connecting America’s elites to ordinary people, Twitter has amplified the beliefs of a small band of hyper-political partisans.
The solution to this problem is a lot more straightforward and achievable than much of the hand-wringing commentary about social media would suggest: It is for political leaders—and everyone else—to keep Twitter in perspective. What’s dangerous to democracy is not the existence of a forum in which extremists can talk to, and shout at, one another—it’s the possibility that decision makers will confuse the forum for the real world, and in so doing allow extremists to shape real-world culture.
A few months ago, I started to notice just how bad an influence Twitter was having on my grasp on reality, my productivity, and my serenity. For a brief period, I considered quitting Twitter. But that didn’t seem like the right solution. For one, I like sharing my work and my views with my followers. For another, I doubted my resolve: Over the past years, I’ve seen too many writers make grandiose announcements about quitting Twitter—only to rejoin the platform a few weeks, or days, after their departure.