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
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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.

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