One of the first things you learn when you start your professional life is that the people who care the most have the most influence.
It’s true in every business, from entertainment to the law to politics. In fact, given our extreme levels of public apathy and civic ignorance, it’s remarkable how few people it takes to transform a political debate. Take some time from one of your evenings to go to a school-board meeting. Watch how a dozen angry men and women can show up and convincingly purport to speak to elected representatives for tens of thousands of voters. Or watch the average political campaign, in which the candidates spend the vast bulk of their time speaking to very small groups of influential people in hopes of generating enthusiasm among an indifferent public.
Politicians are people, and people tend to respond to actual voices, not silent majorities. Aiming for the applause you know you can receive makes perfect sense.
And that brings us to Twitter. By measure of active users, it’s a lightweight. Facebook is the behemoth, with more than 2.2 billion people on the platform. YouTube has 1.9 billion, Instagram 1 billion. Twitter is all the way down below China’s Qzone and TikTok at a mere 335 million. But in public influence it punches far above its weight. Why? Because it’s where cultural kingmakers congregate, and thus where conventional wisdom is formed and shaped — often instantly and thoughtlessly.
In other words, Twitter is where the people who care the most spend their time. The disproportionate influence of microbursts of instant public comments from a curated set of people these influencers follow shapes their writing and thinking and conduct way beyond the platform.
Even worse, given the geographic and social sorting that dominates American life, Twitter can present any given activist with a near-exclusive look at the other side of the aisle. Thus, MAGA-Twitter is Trump’s America. Social-Justice Twitter is progressive America. And to the extent that other influencers (CEOs, studio heads, government bureaucrats, etc.) are online themselves, they’re often captured by the same hysteria.
If you’re offline for even a day or two, entire virtual controversies with real-world consequences can come and go without your knowledge. Old tweets surface. People lose their jobs. Politicians advance or retreat. And hardly anyone outside Twitter knows what happened.
Thus the gap between the engaged online few and the real-world many only grows. I’m consistently asked by those in the former group how Trump’s supporters stick with him in spite of the long list of scandals for which every political Twitter user can cite chapter and verse. My first answer is simple: Trump’s supporters often have no idea the scandals of the day even exist. They erupt, they’re hashed out in a day’s or a week’s worth of tweets and disposable news stories, and they pass from the scene before they penetrate the larger offline culture.
In the meantime, the leaders of both political parties, allied activists, and their constellation of vocal followers grow ever more radicalized. Real-world decisions continue to be made in response to temper tantrums by a surprisingly small number of people. Because, after all, those are the only voices heard in the heat of the moment, and they are always more influential than those who remain silent.
Twitter takes underlying trends and makes them more extreme. To borrow from Spinal Tap, it turns everything up to eleven, all day, every day.
Yes, it can enhance joyful things. If you want relief from the fury and rage of political Twitter, make an NBA Twitter list — from the feed you’d think the league consists entirely of highlight-reel dunks, humorous “beefs” between athletes, and long, dramatic threes in the closing seconds. NBA Twitter creates a positive alternative reality to counter political Twitter’s negative reality. But because of who’s on the platform, political Twitter’s negative reality all too often infects the real world to disastrous effect.
And there’s the problem: Absent large-scale collective action by the political/media class to reject the platform, simply logging off Twitter is merely a personal defensive mechanism — a sometimes necessary mental-health break that all too often correlates with diminished influence in the national political debate.
It’s tempting, when reading a news feed full of rage and hysteria, to console yourself in the knowledge that it’s “just Twitter.” But behind those angry, hyperbolic tweets (well, the blue-check-marked ones, anyway) are people, and those people are disproportionately the most engaged and most influential men and women in American public life. It’s “just” the American political class putting its rage and intemperance on display, hoping to remake the world in its own irate image. And the surprising success of that attempted makeover should scare you, whatever your own political views are.