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Essential Politics: Twitter is 15. How 140 characters unleashed a ‘firehose’ we can’t turn off

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey
Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey testifies in 2018 before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing on foreign influence operations and their use of social media.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

This is the March 24, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

The first-ever tweet was remarkably benign. On March 21, 2006, Twitter chief executive and co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted a simple message to no one: “just setting up my twttr.”

Twitter wouldn’t go live to the public for months. It would be years before then-President Trump introduced policy, set off diplomatic crises and fired staffers — all by tweets, a first for a president. In 2006, early critics were dismissing the platform as narcissistic and frivolous. How much can you really say with 140 characters?

Plenty, it turns out.

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What we understand now is that social media upsets the traditional relationship between leaders and their voters, compressing the distance and removing the filters between them.

For better or worse, decisions that shape policy and politics can be influenced by retweets, and hashtags can launch movements (think #MeToo). Members of Congress like Georgia Republican and conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have risen to national prominence in part through their posts. Campaigns now hire staff to manage their social media.

It’s a new American playbook embraced by both parties. On Twitter’s 15th birthday, we ask: Why is the platform so popular with the political establishment?

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I invited three colleagues to discuss Twitter’s appeal and legacy. Politics reporter Seema Mehta has covered presidential campaigns for The Times for more than a decade, including 2020. Matt Pearce is also fresh off covering the 2020 election and now writes about internet culture and podcasting. And Sam Dean is a reporter on The Times’ technology team.

Our conversation follows. It has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.

LAURA: In 15 years, Twitter has grown into a massive cultural presence, but it didn’t start that way. When did you first take notice of Twitter as a platform for politics?

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SEEMA: During the 2010 California governor’s and senate races — the campaigns were using Twitter to reach out to voters, to promote their policy proposals and to try to shape the narrative about the races. At first I thought I would be a lurker and not really use Twitter that much. Tens of thousands of tweets later, that certainly has not proven to be true!

MATT: My first experience with Twitter as a real political force was during the Arab Spring in 2011, when I was covering the Egyptian uprising and saw how activists were using the space to rally against the regime. It echoed how Occupy Wall Street activists were using the platform in the U.S. It was an insurgent format.

SAM: Right, exactly — I remember the Arab Spring being the moment when “Twitter as politics” really took on steam, Twitter as something that might be more legitimate than just anonymous eggs sniping from the sidelines. Twitter as a company has also really leaned on that image in the past decade — as a righteous cause — at the core of its business model (which is ultimately just getting us hooked on scrolling and selling ads.)

SEEMA: The 2012 presidential campaign was when I really began using it heavily. I was covering the Romney campaign at the time, and what struck me was how the campaign used to monitor the tweets of the reporters covering him, to see and respond in real time to how the narrative was developing. They didn’t have to wait until our stories posted or were aired.

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LAURA: What about this platform is so attractive? Far more of the country spends its time on Facebook, for example, but lawmakers seem to have this strong affinity for Twitter.

MATT: Information is one of the most important currencies in politics (along with another currency, the U.S. dollar), and Twitter is an information firehose. When you’re logged in, you’re jacked into the Matrix.

SAM: I think there’s also something to the purity of the format that helps things break through. On Facebook, the default format is an image, or a link to an article, whereas on Twitter a clear message can really stand out without being crowded by baby photos and free couches.

Twitter is a lot smaller than Facebook or Instagram — Twitter has 192 million daily users worldwide, while Snapchat has 265 million, Instagram has more than 500 million, and Facebook has an incredible 1.85 billion. But if you drill down on the American media landscape, Twitter has a much larger potential audience than cable news.

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About 37 million Americans are on Twitter daily, according to the company’s financial reports, whereas the primetime news viewership of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC combined barely tops 10 million each night. Most Twitter users are siloed into their information bubbles, but when a tweet goes truly viral — as tweets from politicians and especially the former president often did — the reach is huge, and immediate.

SEEMA: While a lot of “real people” aren’t on Twitter, the political world is. So you know your message is being heard by reporters, TV bookers, etc.

LAURA: That kind of powerful access can go both ways. Sometimes it’s useful, but there can be major offline political consequences, too, as we’ve learned in the past four years. Do you all feel like offline politics have changed?

SEEMA: I fear that it can create groupthink. And also that people can lose sight of how Twitter isn’t necessarily reflective of how voters feel.

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MATT: One of the wildest things you can do as a journalist is spend a lot of time absorbing conventional wisdom on Twitter and then go interview a bunch of voters at a campaign event. Totally different worlds.

SAM: This might be taking too much of a software-as-destiny approach, but there is something to the interactivity and group harassment that you can make happen on Twitter that seems to have flowed back into the real world.

Before, if a politician was on talk radio or a TV news show, the fans at home could pump their fists and contemplate grinding their political enemies into dust, but they couldn’t actually all show up on someone’s Twitter feed in that moment and start harassing them. The ability of politicians and political actors to give people something immediate to do, that forms a stronger group identity around dunking and DMing and harassing people off the internet. I think that has added a certain bloodthirstiness.

LAURA: Right, and then there’s a figure like Trump — a president who embraced both the online and offline. He found a strong base of voter support, but was also deeply tied to Twitter.

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MATT: Twitter, in terms of followers and engagement, rewards personalities. And there was no bigger personality than Trump. Compare that to President Biden, who ran one of the lowest-key presidential campaigns ever, and who won with a record number of votes.

SEEMA: President Trump was incredibly effective at using Twitter to bypass the media and speak directly to his supporters. But it’s also dangerous. Because he was able to spread information that was not true — like that the election was stolen — and there was no fact-checking until Twitter eventually kicked him off the platform.

SAM: One of my favorite takes (read on Twitter, of course) on the Trump rhetorical style was that he had the cadences and instincts of a borscht belt comedian working for a right-wing tabloid. And one of the first professional communities besides journalists to really lean into Twitter were comedians. And I think Trump’s way of talking and thinking fell right in the sweet spot of what works on Twitter. But as Seema points out, something “working” in a medium doesn’t mean it’s working for … society. Which is why Twitter eventually kicked him off!

LAURA: Speaking of Trump’s ban, how do you all see Twitter’s new approach playing out? After years of criticism, they’ve finally introduced new moderation standards, but is this a situation they can still control after 15 years — and do they even want to? After banning Trump from Twitter, Dorsey said he worried that precedent “will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet.”

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SEEMA: I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle.

SAM: The company was really flailing in the days leading up to the election and then around the storming of the Capitol on Jan 6. I had to track the shifting terms of service and flagging/fact-checking/deleting/spread-limiting policies, and the overall picture was of a company tying itself into knots to avoid making a serious decision about the risk that politicians like Trump posed to human lives and the basic rule of law in the country.

The company will say that new standards have been put in place, but it’s hard to know how that will play out when the rubber hits the road, and another fire breathing, lie-spreading public figure amasses millions of followers on the platform. I think the ability to control is there, at least in very high-profile cases. It is just a question of whether they want to.

MATT: It says something about Twitter’s power that as soon as they banned the president, our political discourse suddenly felt a lot different. Which is unsettling. The president should be able to speak. At the same time, the president shouldn’t be encouraging his followers to thwart a free and fair election. It’s a mess.

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A very brief history of politics and Twitter

President Obama is often credited as the first online president. His use of social media was so prolific, it has its own Wikipedia page.

He joined Twitter as @BarackObama in March 2007, and sent what are likely his first tweets that May. Obama was the first president to have a Twitter account and his administration marked the launch of the official @POTUS account on May 18, 2015, setting the precedent for administrations to come.

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To date, Obama’s @BarackObama account remains the most followed account on the platform, with more than 130 million followers.

But Obama wasn’t the first major U.S. politician to embrace Twitter. Determining that kind of milestone with certainty is difficult on a platform with so much traffic, but one thing is certain: Former Sen. John Edwards, the disgraced North Carolinian who was Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee and a two-time presidential candidate, has Obama beat.

A CQ Weekly story from April 7, 2007, reports that Edwards thanked well-wishers via Twitter for their support amid his wife’s cancer recurrence. At the time, Edwards was considered “far and away the leading adopter of technology in either major party’s presidential field.” The story is a delightful time capsule, harkening back to an era when the platform had to be described as “the real-time messaging service known as Twitter,” and “tweet” wasn’t yet a verb.

Twitter introduced account verification in 2009 — name-checking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gavin Newsom in the process — to confront a troubling trend of impersonation claims and a lawsuit. Starting in 2010, the Library of Congress worked with the company to archive every tweet, only to scale back to major events and figures due to sheer volume.

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A 2020 Pew Research Center analysis found members of Congress dramatically scaled up their use of Twitter in the second half of the 2010s. The average number of tweets the typical member of Congress posted each month nearly doubled between 2016 to 2020.

Government officials have had to reckon with grass-roots political movements built on tweets. #BlackLivesMatter found a home on Twitter and so did #MeToo, which exploded into prominence in 2017. The platform also helped fuel far-right extremism, conspiracy theories like QAnon and harassment for political ends.

The view from Washington

— For the second time in a week, Biden’s campaign to highlight pandemic relief benefits has been overshadowed by a mass shooting, thrusting the issue of gun control to the fore, Eli Stokols writes. He called on Congress to act, but it’s not clear what Biden or Democrats can do, Sarah D. Wire reports.

— From Anita Chabria: Experts on extremism are warning about a troubling shift in the right-wing QAnon movement toward a new vein of conspiracy that blends anti-Chinese and anti-Jewish tropes with fears of vaccines and a global plot to take over the world.

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— Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has built a reputation as a maverick conservative Democrat. But as Melanie Mason writes, she’s now part of the majority ruling party for the first time in her career, a test of her approach.

Alex Padilla is the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate, Wire writes. Can he help break Washington’s gridlock on immigration reform?

— Border crossings from Mexico are surging amid rumors that the Biden administration will be more lenient. Molly Hennessey-Fiske spoke to migrants and reports that an overwhelmed Border Patrol is releasing some without court paperwork, stirring confusion.

— Biden on Monday dispatched a high-level team to Mexico and Central America to start negotiating a “humane” solution to the growing crisis, Tracy Wilkinson reports.

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The view from California

— The latest on the recall effort: A critical question is whether another Democrat jumps into the race to replace Newsom, and many political experts believe it is inevitable, Mehta writes.

— With Xavier Becerra confirmed as Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary, Newsom must choose a new California attorney general. Patrick McGreevy takes a look at the likely candidates.

— A Biden initiative that would pour money into repairing America’s decrepit infrastructure could net California a major windfall — if it gains traction, Ralph Vartabedian writes.

— Affluent suburbanites seem unlikely revolutionaries. But Orange County is seeing a resurgence in right-wing extremism at a time when major demographic shifts have turned the region from a deep-red bastion into a more racially and politically diverse community.

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