Why Twitter May Be Ruinous for the Left
Twitter exhibits a curiously tight grip on American culture, Robinson Meyer argued last month. Tweets are embedded in news stories, screencapped for Instagram, and quoted on TV shows and podcasts. The platform, however, can also misconstrue people’s ideas and identities, he writes: “On Twitter, ideas are so commodified that to say something is simultaneously to amplify it. You’re never ‘just saying’ on Twitter. You’re always doing.”
Meyer prefaced his thesis by describing a Twitter dustup between supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—and how a series of tweets can create a large-scale news story or debate online. It seems to me that the real heart of the article, however, comes in the fifth paragraph:
Twitter is especially loved by the press, and the unfortunate affinity that journalists and policy makers have for the social network means that—as with politics itself—you may not care about Twitter, but it cares about you, especially if you’ve just done something embarrassing on national television.
According to a 2019 analysis by Pew Research Center, 22 percent of adults in the U.S. use Twitter, but just 10 percent of those adults are responsible for 80 percent of tweets. Yet, as the article clearly lays out, Twitter exerts outsize power and influence on our public discourse.
Because journalists are hooked on Twitter, they often—no, constantly—write news stories about things that happen on the platform. Our biggest problem is this phenomenon: Something happens on Twitter; celebrities, politicians and journalists talk about it, and it’s circulated to a wider audience by Twitter’s algorithms; journalists write about the dustup. They often present the subject as a debate roiling the country, when it’s really just an argument taking place inside that journalist’s Twitter feed. Regular people are left with a confused, agitated view of our current political discourse and in many cases of our fellow Americans.
Meyer’s article is a fantastic example of this problem (to his credit, he makes this point in the article). I had never heard of any story about a #NeverWarren hashtag trending on Twitter until I read it. Meyer closes by saying, “You’re never ‘just saying’ on Twitter. You’re always doing.” I think he’s absolutely right. I think our news media desperately need to stop “doing.”
I know that making the argument that journalists should largely quit Twitter may sound drastic. But is it? In order for our republic to begin to heal, we are going to need our news agencies to stop engaging in the same destructive behaviors that put us here in the first place. The “democratic culture” is not at work on the platform, not really. Some people using it are having a good time and influencing each other. But the distorted, often ill-prepared arguments and political firestorms are generally not helpful or informative for the rest of us. If Twitter is ruinous for the Left, then chances are it’s functionally ruinous for the whole country.
Benjamin M. Reilly