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Once again, Twitter played a meaningful role in the 2022 Midterm Elections, as it has in several previous elections.
Democrat John Fetterman used Twitter to relentlessly mock his Republican opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz in their Pennsylvania Senate race while he was recovering from a stroke. (Remember the uproar over “crudité”?)
Herschel Walker’s son attacked his father on Twitter over a report that the Georgia Republican Senate candidate paid for an abortion for his girlfriend.
And Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake took flak for endorsing on Twitter an Oklahoma legislative candidate who said “the Jews” are proof that “evil exists.”
But in the wake of Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of the platform, Twitter’s impact on American politics could very well change by the 2024 Presidential Election.
Why? Two reasons.
One, because the reduction to Twitter’s workforce could eventually render the platform unreliable and therefore useless to the political class.
And two, because Twitter has so far been unable to prevent unscrupulous users from impersonating anyone with its new subscription service, which threatens to make the platform a cesspool of trolling and inaccurate information.
Launched in 2006, Twitter didn’t become a force in American politics until the 2010 Midterms and the 2012 Presidential Election, when journalists started seeing campaigns promote their policy proposals on the platform and monitor reporters’ tweets to see how the narrative was developing in real time.
“Information is one of the most important currencies in politics...” Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce said in a 2021 interview about Twitter’s influence on the political process, “and Twitter is an information firehose.”
Twitter quickly upended traditional political discourse by compressing the distance between politicians and their voters (to say nothing of pundits and journalists and others in the political-industrial complex). Voters could interact directly with their elected leaders, in 140-character increments (later 280 characters), with real-time conversations and retweets affecting policy decisions and endorsements.
President Barack Obama embraced Twitter, as our nation’s first so-called online president, establishing the @POTUS account in May 2015. But it was his successor, President Donald Trump, who elevated the tweet into essential political discourse.
During the 2016 Presidential Election and throughout much of his presidency, Twitter was arguably Trump’s preferred method of speaking to the American people, avoiding the filters of the mainstream media to talk directly to his supporters and critics alike.
At his height, Trump’s Twitter feed was ubiquitous and indispensable, monitored effectively 24/7 by journalists, politicos or anyone intrigued by the rollicking dramafest that was The Donald’s presidency.
Political Twitter calmed down some after Trump was suspended from the platform in the wake of the January 6, 2021 siege on the U.S. Capitol (although Musk has since invited him back). But the platform has obviously remained a significant forum for political discourse, especially since an overwhelming number of its users are journalists and members of the professional political class.
That all could be changing, however. As has been widely reported, one of Musk’s first moves after acquiring Twitter in late October was laying off a large number of the platform’s staff, which was followed by mass resignations of more staff in mid-November.
Almost immediately afterward the initial round of layoffs, small things started breaking down on the site. As reported by MIT Technology Review on November 4, just hours after the layoffs, some Twitter users found the retweet button not working. Thirteen years after Twitter had introduced the button to automate something users were already doing — copying and pasting someone else’s tweet, with “RT” at the front – the manual retweet returned, apparently because of a lack of backend maintenance on the site.
As a site reliability engineer told MIT Technology Review, the biggest risk of all the Twitter layoffs is “smaller things starting to degrade.”
“Whether it’s manual RTs appearing for a moment before retweets slowly morph into their standard form, ghostly follower counts that race ahead of the number of people actually following you, or replies that simply refuse to load,” Chris Stokel-Walker wrote in MIT Technology Review, “small bugs are appearing at Twitter’s periphery.”
That alone, in theory, could eventually spell the end of Twitter’s political influence because, as the Trump presidency conclusively showed, political discourse on Twitter can cause unforeseen spikes in use on the platform. Managing those traffic spikes becomes infinitely harder with less staff – especially when those let go include experienced, knowledgeable computer engineers.
The fear is that with less backend support, Twitter is going to slowly rot and wither, becoming less reliable, less able to handle traffic, less useful. And then what?
A communication platform that cannot reliably transmit messages isn’t valuable to anyone, especially for politicos who are hungry for real-time information.
But perhaps even more alarming for the future of political discourse on Twitter was the immediate impact of its new paid subscription service, which touched off waves of fake verified accounts after it was rolled out on November 9.
Among the fake postings in the wake of Twitter Blue’s launch were accounts purporting to represent Trump, Rudy Giuliani and the video company Nintendo America. A fake account for Lebron James claimed the basketball star wanted a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers.
Obviously, an inaccurate or misleading communication platform isn’t valuable to, or healthy for, political discourse.
The Twitter Blue rollout went so poorly that the company suspended it beginning on November 11. Musk said in late November the checkmark program could resume in early December with a new procedure for manually verifying a user’s identity.
But even Musk isn’t exactly sure how well this new process will work, saying, “we shall see how it goes.”
As bleak as things may seem right now, is American political discourse really in danger of losing something vital? Lloyd Levine, a former California assembly member who’s now a senior policy fellow at the University of California-Riverside School of Public Policy and co-founder of its Center for Technology, Policy and Society, says no.
“I would argue that right now it’s a little premature to say Twitter is dead,” he said in mid-November. “We don’t know right now what will happen.”
Levine said that while Twitter is undoubtedly popular with political professionals, it’s hardly the only forum for political discourse in America today. Political discussion in the United States is incredibly fractured and segmented, making no single source or platform – Twitter, Fox News, Facebook – the end-all, be-all for the political conversation.
What’s more, “if the worst case happens and Twitter completely collapses and dies,” Levine said, there’s clearly going to be a demand for a replacement, as is already being discussed on Twitter. “Something will probably rise up to fill that void,” he said.
Many alternatives have in fact already risen up, with Twitter’s troubles providing them with an immediate and significant boost in users.
For better or worse, Twitter has influenced political discourse in America for several years now. Musk’s new moves could change that influence – but at this point it’s anyone’s guess what that could mean or how it could benefit, or harm, the political process.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
-- By SNCJ Correspondent Brian Joseph
As of 2011 Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado were the states with the highest Twitter use per capita, all with rates over 40 percent higher than the national average, according to sales, marketing and customer service software developer Hubspot. The states with the lowest per-capita use were Mississippi, Montana, West Virginia, Missouri and New Mexico, all with rates below the national average by 40 percent or more.