Is Twitter Better or Worse for Democracy?

Trump and AOC won't be the only ones who use it

Heavy Twitter users know Trump’s twitter more than they know anything else about him. The reason being, over the past four years and especially this past year, as COVID pushed so many to remain at home hunched over their keyboards, Twitter has become its own separate reality, a universe driven solely by a system that was designed to bring out the worst in people.

Twitter resisted the manipulation algorithm in its early days. It used to be, when you signed onto Twitter you saw your friend’s tweets in chronological order. Then, according to Slate, around February of 2016 they changed their algorithm so that when you signed onto Twitter you were seeing the tweets with the most engagement first. This is fairly typical of social networks and it was what made Twitter stand out, to my mind, as the better option. Imagine how that made a difference in that entire year of 2016 as trolls took to Twitter to divide Americans ahead of the November election.

We simply went along with it, as we always do online. We have no choice. Our brains are addicted to it. And in fact Twitter’s engagement shift is more addicting, which is why they adopted it. They will take no responsibility for slowly driving people in large numbers completely insane. It is our choice to use the site. But that is not quite true. If you want anyone to read anything, if you want to build your business online you have to engage with social media. I myself finally escaped Facebook, even though I get far more engagement there than anywhere else, including Twitter. But I recognized my use of it was doing actual harm to my brain, my emotional state and my relationships.

Donald Trump is a Twitter addict. So is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These are two politicians who use Twitter to remind themselves of their power and popularity — on Twitter, if they are feeling attacked by the press (Trump), by conservatives (AOC). They get hundreds of thousands of likes and RTs for anything they tweet and you can imagine what just that does to the human brain.

Most of us have a personality shift when we go on Twitter. We become someone else. I know I do. I have so many friends who tell me they like me in real life but think I am a harsh and terrible person on Twitter. And it’s true. Twitter makes me into a meaner person, someone much more willing to pull the trigger and diminish someone else, or worse, make bold and controversial statements. I have yet to figure out why Twitter, more than any other site, brings this out but for four years I’ve watched Trump on Twitter, and even AOC on Twitter, present a completely different version of themselves to their followers.

The problem is that they are actual government officials. Trump is the President and thus, his Twitter use is a much bigger problem not just for him but for the country. Those who react to his Twitter see him as a fascist dictator, because he mostly plays one on Twitter. In real life, not so much. I would bet that of those 73 million who vote for him at least half aren’t even on Twitter and don’t know that version of Trump.

Trump says the same kinds of provocative and controversial things anyone on Twitter would say but he does it as the President of the United States. At first, people didn’t quite know what to make of it, or they laughed it off (on the right) or were terrorized by it (on the left). Now, one might say it helped bring down his presidency. Many voters who did know Trump on Twitter did see him as Hitler because that is basically his role on Twitter.

Since the news media has now become just an amplifier or “magic mirror” for Twitter what happens on Twitter spills out to CNN and MSNBC and the New York Times and the Washington Post. Unless you are unplugged from these systems the Twitter Trump is all the Trump you know. The majority appears to be plugged into these systems for better or worse.

When conservatives say, and they often do, if you pay attention to Trump in real life and his actions in real life he’s a good president. But if you pay attention to Twitter Trump he is the biggest threat to Democracy the country has ever faced. I think it’s something more like the combination of Twitter and Trump is the real threat. If you look at AOC, she is building a massive profile and coalition just by using Twitter and speaking to a generation that has come of age on the platform, as well as others. Internet natives have evolved inside the loop of artificial intelligence and manipulative algorithms. That means to speak to this generation, building status online is going to be key from here on out. Trump and AOC mastered it, for better or worse.

Trump’s Twitter in the last days of the election are, to my mind, the worst they’ve ever been. When you look at them and you imagine what he’s saying - he is trying to get visible support for the notion that there was a widespread conspiracy to fake election results. And look at how much attention he gets from this. Twitter’s flaccid annoying little notes do nothing but protect Twitter from blame.

I can’t be 100% sure on this but some of Trump’s tweets get much higher favorites than this one, which leads me to believe that he has a lot more support in general than he does for something truly insane like these tweets. That would have to mean that a good many people simply do not take Trump’s tweeting at all seriously and simply disregard it. Meanwhile, on the left, it is the most terrifying thing they’ve ever seen.

Twitter’s stock portfolio started high, then began to tank and then revived itself somewhat after it shifted the algorithm. Or perhaps it was Trump himself that made the platform more popular. It’s hard to say.

Many on the conservative side would say that without Twitter Trump would have been a really great president. But the irony is that without Twitter Trump would never BE president. A cautionary tale for the future. Twitter, even more than Facebook which is being tightly controlled at the moment, is going to be key in how candidates build their coalitions. There are other sites like Parler and Rumble that are trying to build momentum outside Silicon Valley’s reach. Google, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook - they have much too much power in this country. After what I have seen this year I do believe that Elizabeth Warren has the right idea, break them up or regulate them.

What I see with Trump and Twitter is a man who was undone by the social media platform he could not break free from. He became addicted to it, as many do, for instant feedback and support. Trump would say that he needed Twitter because the news media would not cover him fairly. I agree with the second part. The news media, on the left at least, absolutely did not cover his presidency fairly. But he had Fox News, which was leading in ratings. And he had powerful voices in his corner. At some point, his use of Twitter became much more about feeding his addiction than it did about speaking directly to the people.

I would stand in judgment of him if I could. I too have a Twitter problem. I’m working on it. The first step is awareness.