The American Idea in 140 Characters

In 10 years of existence, Twitter has given rise to forces that are completely reshaping the course of political dialogue.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

“Thinking we’re only one signature away from ending the war in Iraq.” With this message in April 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama began the very first Twitter campaign for president and, in the process, launched one of the first demonstrations of the power of the social-media platform to influence politics and political debate.

Obama’s first tweet came little more than a year after Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s first tweet on March 21, 2006. In the 10 years since, Twitter has grown into a force that has bolstered grassroots conversations, disrupted the top-down nature of political leadership and thought, and given voice to groups long hidden on the political periphery. And while that may describe the kind of discourse-democratizing revolution many have been clamoring for, that revolution comes with an all-out, bloody fight over identity, power, and the very future of politics. What has the first decade of Twitter brought us?

Obama’s first campaign only came during the embryonic phases of Twitter’s ascendancy. However, Adam Sharp, Twitter’s head of news, government, and elections, notes that Twitter’s promise was evident even then. “Twitter’s impact in politics and political movements became very clear very early on,” Sharp told me.

And that impact was organic, Sharp believes: “I think it was less Twitter coming to politics, and more politics coming to Twitter and finding it as a platform to communicate and to organize effectively without a lot of the costs historically associated with that.”

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and it appears that even politics is not exempt from Newton’s Third Law. With Obama’s Twitter-savvy rise came the coalescence of the bloc most diametrically opposed to him: the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party was one of the first American political structures that could actually be said to owe its existence to Twitter, and it was arguably the first movement to fully harness the power of Twitter to bind and amplify groups of people who were geographically distant but ideologically similar.

Michael Patrick Leahy, the founder of the #TCOT (Top Conservatives on Twitter) hashtag and a key architect of the Tea Party movement, describes the origin of the Tea Party as a spontaneous manifestation of isolation and anger.

“You really have to go back to 2008,” Leahy says. “Twitter had been around for a couple years, but it was dominated by liberals for the most part, and conservatives didn’t have a big role. And then of course, in November of 2008, President Obama was elected for the first time. And there was a lot of consternation and gnashing of the teeth––‘Oh, woe is me’––among Republicans in general, but more specifically conservatives.” Obama’s election, Senator John McCain’s moderate (and losing ) campaign, and the late-2008 auto-industry bailout created the perfect environment for conservatives—who felt they were not heard by outgoing Republican leadership and would be left behind by the incoming Democratic leadership—to turn to a nontraditional source of political power.

The Tea Party’s rise to national prominence mirrors the kind of virality and exponential message growth that Twitter creates in such a unique way. Leahy started a list of conservatives to follow on Twitter shortly after joining in September 2008. The #TCOT hashtag and list were online before the end of 2008 and had ballooned from a 30-member list to a 3,500-plus group with organized weekly conference calls by early 2009. By the time Rick Santelli gave his infamous “Chicago Tea Party” rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on February 19, Leahy’s group had the digital horsepower to run with it. The Tea Party movement was launched in a conference call a day later, and by April, there were dozens of local Tea Parties, with more to come.

Fast-forward to 2016: Twitter’s early promise as a political tool has become ingrained as a political reality. A candidate without Twitter is a losing candidate. Social-media interns––and their social-media gaffes––are ubiquities. Candidates now levy insults directly across the platform in a way that might have been unthinkable even a year ago. Commentators and voters engage with the highest officeholders in the world with candor, frankness––and often meanness and crassness––and sometimes even participate in real back-and-forth dialogue. This open dialogue, including the presence of watchdog groups such as Politiwoops, has also bolstered accountability and has caused the downfall of several politicians who were not so mindful of the new rules in play. The amount of discursive access to politicians is unprecedented in the past century of American politics.

If discursive access to politicians transfers power away from politicians, groups and individuals operating in new-media spaces have engaged in a political power grab as the landscape equalizes. And those groups have become incredibly savvy at using the strengths of Twitter for their own devices.

The organization of populist ultra-conservative groups on Twitter is remarkable, as are the precision salvos of trolling, debate, and on-message attacks against politicians, activists, and other public figures, some liberal and some conservative, that they often rely on as tools. Research has shown the power of Tea Party Twitter in using redundant messaging and an intense but often informal system of signal amplification to share messages and calls to action. Twitter’s rapidity and brevity, as well as the open-air nature of its debate, make it perhaps more suited to these tasks than other social-media platforms. In a sense, the leaflet- and town-hall-based democratic scrum that defined early America has been repurposed and hyper-focused on Twitter.

While the Tea Party’s DNA courses through this election cycle with its currents of anger, fear of outsiders, and economic laments, it is now often matched by the newer social-media muscle of marginalized groups and liberal causes. The Occupy Movement in late 2011 relied on Twitter for coordination of direct action and amplification of messages, and Black Lives Matter perfected its tactics just a few years later.

Johnetta Elzie, 26, is one of the most prominent activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, and since her experience with protests in Ferguson, she has considered the platform an integral part of her work and of discourse more broadly. “A large part of the work is just amplifying people who may not have such large platforms and don’t have access to people with large platforms,” Elzie told me. “We sort of take away the middleman there, and a simple retweet can boost a message to almost 500,000 people, and that’s big.”

With the amplifying power of Twitter, Elzie notes that she and other leaders can in essence match opponents who are much more well-funded and can do some things that traditional dialogue and media channels could never achieve. Savvy. “We became our own media,” Elzie says. “We became our own voices. We became credible in places where white media couldn’t go.” This illustrates the key power of Twitter in providing meaningful opportunities to engage and push policy in ways that marginalized groups and minorities simply did not have in the past.

Of course, the forces unleashed and empowered by Twitter, while sharing a common wellspring of power, are often naturally opposing forces. As evidenced in the candidacies of Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, which Leahy notes are driven by Tea Party sentiment, Twitter has been a force multiplier and organizational backbone for disgruntled––often xenophobic and bigoted––groups of people. Trump in particular embodies the trolling, fringe character of some groups within conservative Twitter coalitions. These same groups often react with alarm and outright disgust to the actions of Black Lives Matter activists and other activists of color who are pushing for a new paradigm of inclusion and broad social changes that might further upend the social-policy goals of Tea Party patriots. Other movements, such as Senator Bernie Sanders’s political revolution, interact with these and other coalitions in a 24-hour crucible of debate, anger, sympathy, alliances, subterfuge, and all-important trolling in the fight to shape the country’s ideas, beliefs, and identity. This online crucible in turn reflects the real forces at work in the brave new offline reality of America. As my colleague Robinson Meyer notes, the world is now witnessing the results in a grand experiment based on Twitter’s novel “cultural hypothesis.”

It is difficult to fully describe how Twitter has helped changed the way Americans participate in exchanges of ideas over the last decade, partly because certain concepts exist now that may have never practically existed. As Sharp notes, “When tools like Twitter enter the mix, that’s where people discover that ‘I’m not alone.’” For any belief, even the most aspirational and even the most base, social media offers a platform for common thread with other likeminded people. Over the past decade, the bounds of geography and group have been pulled back to reveal the sinews of a system that now promises that no person will ever have to be alone again. Twitter allows users to turn that solitude into coalitions, and it gives them the tools to sometimes even accomplish what the ballot box can’t.

Above all, Twitter democratizes and shakes up the genteel inertia of modern political dialogue, for better or for worse. And it shifts much of the power once hoarded by political establishments back into the hands––or voices––of people. Or as Elzie puts it, Twitter helps us become “whoever the hell we were looking for in the first place.” But the question still remains: Just who are we looking for?