Twitter: Trapped Inside the Echo Chamber

Logos for the microblogging site Twitter, displayed on the internet on September 13, 2013 in London, England.
National Journal
Marin Cogan
See more stories about...
Marin Cogan
Oct. 4, 2013, 2 a.m.

“We’ve star­ted and we’re work­ing with the White House on a hasht­ag,” Sen­at­or Chuck Schu­mer told re­port­ers on day three of the gov­ern­ment shut­down, un­veil­ing a new mes­saging strategy Demo­crats were plot­ting with the White House. OK, a hasht­ag might not end the shut­down. But Schu­mer’s com­ment was a re­mind­er of how cent­ral the so­cial net­work­ing site has been dur­ing the last week to our pain­fully dys­func­tion­al polit­ic­al sys­tem. By Fri­day morn­ing, Con­gress still hadn’t found a way to do its con­sti­tu­tion­ally man­dated job—but staffers were fight­ing in plain view with oth­er staffers, once an­onym­ous con­gress­men were clown­ing them­selves in the pub­lic sphere, and a ma­jor break­ing news event had turned every­one on the hill in­to a Twit­ter re­port­er.

Twit­ter played no small role in the echo-cham­ber dy­nam­ic that led a small group of like-minded in­di­vidu­als in the House GOP in­to be­liev­ing a fairy tale: that they could force the pres­id­ent to dis­mantle his sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment simply by be­ing tough enough. Robert Costa, a Na­tion­al Re­view ed­it­or who un­der­stands the dy­nam­ics with­in the House GOP as well or bet­ter than any journ­al­ist in Wash­ing­ton right now, told Wash­ing­ton Post’s Ezra Klein this week that “so many of these mem­bers now live in the con­ser­vat­ive world of talk ra­dio and tea party con­ven­tions and Fox News in­vit­a­tions. And so the con­ser­vat­ive strategy of the mo­ment, no mat­ter how un­real­ist­ic it might be, catches fire. The mem­bers be­gin to be­lieve they can achieve things in di­vided gov­ern­ment that most ob­ject­ive ob­serv­ers would be­lieve is im­possible.”

He’s right to trace it back to talk ra­dio and cable news. In his 2005 At­lantic piece on the rise of talk ra­dio, Dav­id Foster Wal­lace poin­ted to the real power of Rush Limbaugh’s po­s­i­tion­ing as a right­eous war­ri­or against main­stream lib­er­al me­dia bi­as. He wrote:

This turned out to be a bril­liantly ef­fect­ive rhet­or­ic­al move, since the MMLB concept func­tioned sim­ul­tan­eously as a stand­ard around which Rush’s audi­ence could rally, as an ar­tic­u­la­tion of the need for right-wing (i.e., un­biased) me­dia, and as a mech­an­ism by which any cri­ti­cism or re­fut­a­tion of con­ser­vat­ive ideas could be dis­missed (either as biased or as the product of in­doc­trin­a­tion by biased me­dia). Boiled way down, the MMLB thes­is is able both to ex­ploit and to per­petu­ate many con­ser­vat­ives’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with ex­tant me­dia sources — and it’s this dis­sat­is­fac­tion that ce­ments polit­ic­al talk ra­dio’s large and loy­al audi­ence.

What he couldn’t have real­ized is that, less than eight years later, the army of dit­to­heads would be­come mini-Rushes them­selves. Thanks to Twit­ter, they’re no longer pass­ively nod­ding along in their car—they’re also cre­at­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing con­tent them­selves, and link­ing up with like-minded in­di­vidu­als who do the same, cre­at­ing a per­fect storm of like-minded people re­in­for­cing their own polit­ic­al views. Some of them are mem­bers of Con­gress. The last time the gov­ern­ment shuttered, the most a sup­port­er of the House GOP’s ef­forts could do was call a con­gres­sion­al of­fice or write an email. Now, sup­port­ers can retweet, fa­vor­ite and send a real time mes­sages to con­gress­men that tap im­me­di­ately in­to the pleas­ure cen­ters of their brains.

Twit­ter prob­ably nev­er should have be­come the an­im­at­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al plat­form of of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton. It’s not that you can’t say any­thing in­tel­li­gent on Twit­ter, but the format is para­dox­ic­ally ex­pans­ive and very, very lim­ited. Nu­ances are lost. What’s easi­er: snark, talk­ing points, ad hom­inem at­tacks.

That Twit­ter has el­ev­ated the voices of many who would not oth­er­wise be at the table is un­deni­ably a good thing. But when you look spe­cific­ally at what’s wrong with Wash­ing­ton at the mo­ment—that one party has shif­ted dra­mat­ic­ally away from the es­tab­lished cen­ter, and is now fight­ing it­self with no strategy for how to get what it wants—it is hard not to see the Twit­ter ef­fect at play. In­side the Cap­it­ol, the charge to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act no mat­ter the cost is be­ing led by in­sur­gent law­makers like Ted Cruz, who built a con­sid­er­able buzz among con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists on­line and off and mar­shalled it to a win­ning cam­paign against an es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ate. Out­side of it, those same groups, like the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, are pres­sur­ing fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans to com­ply at threat of neg­at­ive ad­vert­ising to their real con­stitu­ents, or worse, a primary chal­lenge. Some of the most power­ful Re­pub­lic­ans in the Sen­ate are also some of the most ju­ni­or, el­ev­ated in­side the Cap­it­ol by their per­ceived in­flu­ence among groups out­side of it.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
14 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
15 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.

Source:
×