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.”