In 2006, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey posted the first tweet ever made: “just setting up my twttr.” Eleven years later, Twitter has emerged as a key platform on which anyone with a smartphone can engage in political discourse.
Whether the dramatic increase in accessibility to politics that Twitter provides is good depends on who you ask. Twitter has facilitated the formation of many of today’s major social and political movements, but has also provided a backdrop to massive scandals that show how a mere 140 characters can ruin a politician’s career. How has Twitter come to play such an important role in modern politics?
Twitter’s impact on politics was first felt during former President Barack Obama’s first campaign. Obama’s 2008 campaign embraced the Internet as a way to rally citizens to an unprecedented extent, evidenced from his regular activity on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Part of the success of his campaign is credited to his commitment to using these platforms. However, even as Obama was harnessing the power of social media, the Tea Party was coming to life in an unconventional way.
In the last few months of 2008, conservatives who felt as if they would not have a voice given that the Democratic leadership was about to take office turned to Twitter to regroup under the hashtag #TCOT – Top Conservatives of Twitter. By early 2009, that group – the Tea Party – had grown to a movement of over 3,500 people with weekly conference calls and several local chapters around the country. In many ways, the Tea Party owes its formation and continued existence to Twitter.
Almost a decade later, Twitter has become necessary to politicians everywhere. There are some benefits to using Twitter in this way; it’s cheap, easy, and fast to communicate with the public. While a TV advertisement can cost millions of dollars, a single post can reach the same number of people just as quickly for a tiny fraction of the cost. Twitter’s enforced brevity ensures that more people make it to the end of the message – a 140-character statement takes only moments to read and retweet. Twitter has also come to function a bit like the town halls of past governments: it’s the public’s place to air their grievances directly to the people in charge.
However, as easy as it is to use Twitter as a political tool, it can just as easily spell out a politician’s demise. Twitter is both immediate and unfiltered – there are no take-backs on the internet, which many have learned the hard way. Perhaps the most well-known scandal involves former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who found himself in hot water in 2011 after an inappropriate photo that was sent to a college student appeared on his Twitter account. That photo led to the discovery that he had been having similar exchanges with several other women, and he eventually resigned from the House. More recently, Milo Yiannopoulos, former senior editor for Breitbart News, resigned after a video in which he appears to condone pedophilia leaked on Twitter.
Today, Twitter is only becoming more central to politics. President Trump has long favored Twitter as his platform of choice in connecting with the American people, and his tweets have often provided insight into his priorities as president. Recently, Twitter has also become the headquarters for activist groups. The Women’s March, a worldwide protest this past January publicized on Twitter and Facebook, ended up being the largest single-day demonstration in US history, and countless other social and political groups organize themselves on social media.
We have yet to see how Twitter continues to shape modern politics, but it’s already clear that it only takes 140 characters to change the course of history.
(Image Courtesy of TechCrunch)