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9/6/19

I was wrong about Twitter

For several years now I have persistently argued that Twitter discourse is not actually a significant force in US politics. And for the most part, I still think this is true. For one thing, even though we often talk about Twitter as if it's some grand forum of public opinion, very few people actually use it. For another, even though we often talk about our politics as if it's downstream from the discourse, usually it's the other way around: the people in our society who have power wield it, and then the rest of us post about what they've done.

Usually - but two fairly recent developments have inclined me to acknowledge some exceptions.

The first is an extremely ridiculous post by David Brooks written from "inside the mind of an internet extremist." Brooks writes a lot of ridiculous posts, but I think that historically they have been a different kind of ridiculous: facially respectable, and only absurd if you were already familiar with what he was writing about. His latest post, on the other hand, is absurd precisely because hardly anyone will be familiar with it or relate to it in any way. Political trolls and haters may be the bane of existence to a few thousand well-off centrist media personalities and their fans, but it's hard to imagine that your average normie will have any idea what Brooks is writing about.

And this isn't even the most bizarre internet-fixated column we've seen in the New York Times in the past week. That award has to go to Bret Stephens, who just last Friday wrote an article comparing his own Twitter oppression to the Holocaust. I can't deny it: it seems clear, as Jeet Heer noted last evening, that Twitter has managed to destroy one of the world's most prestigious platforms of elite opinion. Teens with anime avis and display names like Dark Joker 5.0 have accomplished what the complete works of Noam Chomsky never could: they finally discredited the New York Times op-ed page.

That's the first development. The second comes just this morning, from would-be presidential candidate Howard Schultz:
...there is an undeniable appetite for meaningful political reform in America. I had hoped to represent this common sense view, but...extreme voices currently dominate the national dialogue...the exhausted majority has largely tuned out of political life online and in the news, leaving the extreme voices to define the debate.
It is hard to not read between the lines here: Schultz dropped out because he felt like he needed to win the internet and realized that the hated left trolls had him beat. Whether or not Schultz actually needed to dominate social media, he clearly thinks that he did, and this gave leftists on sites like Twitter leverage over his campaign. Had he chosen to run, it seems quite probable that he would have both lost and peeled off a significant number of votes from the Democratic nominee; now, because of online, it's appreciably more likely that Trump will lose.


I still think that it's the material engine of class struggle, rather than micro-trends in the discourse, that drives history's most significant outcomes - and that Twitter's relevance is almost always grossly overstated, even when it comes to smaller developments like particular elections. Nevertheless, it seems impossible to deny that the deranged psychological investment that even our most powerful elites have in their social media accounts is having a significant impact on their political behavior.