Elon Musk and Twitter's Declining Relevance
The billionaire's attempt to buy Twitter raises questions about its political impact
Ever since the news broke a few weeks ago that Musk had become Twitter’s largest shareholder, the platform itself has been overrun with concerns about whether the billionaire entrepreneur/online troll/Joe Rogan fan would reinstate Donald Trump and the others who were banned in recent years for violating various rules. Those concerns were greatly magnified on Thursday morning when the news broke that Musk was trying to buy the company and take it private – essentially giving him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted.
It seems fairly clear to me that Musk would make Twitter a worse experience for everyone involved given his own tendency to spread misinformation and engage in online abuse. But will Musk taking over Twitter and reinstating Trump and his MAGA minions have any effect on the upcoming elections? Put another way, how much does Twitter even matter?
The 2016 election established Twitter as the platform for politics. While Facebook and Instagram had much larger user bases, Twitter was where 100 percent of reporters, politicians, and political junkies went to consume, make, and break news. While politicians had been on the platform for many years at that point, Trump was the first to make it a central part of his political messaging strategy. Given his large following and “authentic” voice, Trump drove the political conversation via tweet morning, noon, and night. His opponents in the primary and general elections spent the campaign responding to Trump’s latest tweet and struggling to get their message out.
After that election, there were countless thinkpieces about Trump’s use of Twitter. Many Democrats – myself included – argued that Democrats needed a better Twitter strategy to succeed in modern politics. In the White House, Trump continued his incessant tweeting – a habit which often failed him. His tendency to retweet QAnon adherents and white supremacists distracted from his message. Republican members of Congress were constantly asked if they agreed with whatever nonsense Trump tweeted late the night before while he was hopped up on Diet Coke and Fox News agitprop.
As the Trump presidency progressed, Twitter faced growing pressure from the Left to ban Trump for repeatedly violating the platform’s rules. At one point during the 2020 Democratic primary, Vice President Kamala Harris made the Trump Twitter ban a central focus of her message. Trump’s presence on Twitter posed a threat to the country and Democrats’ hopes to defeat him.
Trump was FINALLY banned after using Twitter (and other means) to incite a violent attempt to overthrow the government. Banning Trump from Twitter was seen as the ultimate defenestration of the two-time loser of the popular vote.
Is Twitter Irrelevant?
If Twitter was truly imperative to elections the ban would have meant that Trump would live out his remaining days in political exile.
But that didn’t happen.
People once argued that Congressional Republicans reluctantly backed the MAGA agenda and helped cover up his crimes because they lived in fear of a Trump tweet. But Trump’s control over the Republican Party is greater today than when he left office. As Sarah Longwell wrote in The Bulwark:
Following the Jan. 6th insurrection and his second impeachment, Trump’s approval rating bottomed out at -21. A truly spectacular implosion.
But over the last 12 months, even as his grip on the party was supposedly waning, his disapproval numbers floated down and his approval number ticked all the way up to 44.6 percent—the highest it’s ever been.
To put a finer point on it, not being on Twitter has helped Trump politically. Or at least it hasn’t hurt him.
To put Twitter’s power in perspective, it’s worth remembering that Twitter has fewer than 220 million active daily users worldwide, and Facebook has nearly 3 billion. According to the Pew Research Center, Twitter is used by 23% of U.S. adults, and only 13% of them use the platform as a regular source of news.
Were We All Wrong About the Power of Twitter?
Twitter is the ultimate political bubble and everyone who works in, writes about or obsesses over politics lives in that bubble. In hindsight, it’s clear that the power of Trump’s tweets were not manifested in the number of people who saw the tweets on Twitter. The political impact was in the tail of the tweets. They were just content that became fodder for news stories. The tweets were reposted on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. The tweets were also a dog whistle to his supporters and the MAGA media about what messages to amplify. The number of RTs were not as consequential as we thought. It was largely platform-agnostic content that went viral.
So I think we (I) overstated the power of Twitter, but the platform is still powerful.
On its face, a Trump tweet is no different than a written statement on White House letterhead or a speech delivered in the Rose Garden. But the media is obsessed with Twitter. They treated every Trump tweet like a stone tablet from the mountain. He was talking to them in their language, so they gave it more coverage and were often unwitting amplifiers of his misinformation.
Having said all of that, dramatic shifts have occurred in the information ecosystem that has reduced the power of Twitter since 2016. The Right-Wing media grew in power but dispersed to other platforms like Gab, Parler, and Gettr. The traditional media that amplified the tweets lost reach and credibility. And some in the media, like Dean Baquet of the New York Times, are reevaluating their relationship with Twitter and trying to establish rules for how their journalists act on the platform.
As TikTok and other social media platforms grow in influence, it seems that Twitter is fading as a political force. If Musk buys the company and reinstates Trump, it will make everyone’s Twitter experience worse, but I don’t think it will have the political impact so many fear.
There is a much, larger more important conversation to be had about social media platforms under the control of unaccountable billionaires. However, from the perspective of domestic politics, Twitter’s influence is not what we all thought.