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Fox News’ Silent War on Twitter

Illustration: Intelligencer

A Twitter mystery is afoot! The official Fox News Twitter account hasn’t tweeted since November 8; the last activity on its Fox Business counterpart is dated November 9. Conspiratorially minded Twitter brainiacs have speculated that the silence is related in some way to the Mueller investigation. But — and I take no pleasure in reporting this — the Marshal of the Supreme Court has not given the Fox Twitter the death penalty. The real reason for the weeklong silence is an almost comfortingly familiar one: Fox News is furious with Twitter.

Fox’s silence reportedly stems from a protest held last week outside Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s home by a group called Smash Racism D.C. Protesters spray-painted an anarchy symbol on Carlson’s driveway and knocked on (but didn’t break down) his door, frightening his wife, who was home alone. According to the Daily Caller, the Smash Racism Twitter account — among others — had posted Carlson’s home address somewhere around the time of the protest.

Carlson’s address is, like many people’s, a matter of public record, but Twitter’s rule against posting “private information” extends (as it should) to “private residences, personal home addresses, or other locations that are considered private.” Nevertheless, when the “Daily Caller News Foundation” and Fox News reported to Twitter that Carlson’s personal home address had been published to the platform, they were apparently told to “open a ticket,” and the tweets remained up. (They have since been taken down.)

While the experience of reporting a tweet in clear violation of Twitter’s stated rules and being politely told to fuck off is a familiar one to many individual users of the social network, it was an insult too grave for Fox News. Hence: silence.

The boycott is an interesting gesture, if a quixotic one — at its size, and with its network effects, Twitter doesn’t “need” Fox News. It seems self-defeating: Doesn’t Fox News want people to read its stories? But it makes more sense when you stop thinking of Twitter as an infrastructural feature against which resistance is futile, and start thinking of it as just another media company in a long line of media companies to earn Fox’s ire. Ten years ago, the late New York Times columnist David Carr wrote that whenever he typed the network’s name, “a series of alarms” would go off in his head: “Danger. Warning. Much mayhem ahead.” At the time, under its former president Roger Ailes, Fox was notorious for its aggressive public-relations strategy, in the same way the Mafia is notorious for its aggressive debt-collection strategy; Carr, in his column, documented the terrifying tactics the network would use against reporters who had displeased it in minor ways, including slandering them on air, accompanied by photos doctored “in a technique familiar to students of vintage German propaganda.”

But it’s one thing to bring your full black-ops resources to bear to punish a reporter and bully his paper off of a story. What do you do when the target of your spite is an anonymous poster and a vast social network? Fox’s image-control operation was successful because the network has a bigger platform and deeper pockets than the newspapers and blogs it has targeted. Individual reporters have audiences a fraction the size of a Fox evening show, and their editors and the institutions to which they belong are often susceptible to a relentless barrage of criticism and invective, if only because they lack the bandwidth or resources to keep up a fight. (As Carr says, “I have choked a few times at the keyboard when Fox News has come up in a story and it was not absolutely critical to the matter at hand.”)

Now Fox finds itself on the opposite end of stick, its audience and resources being a fraction of the size of Twitter’s. What options was it left with, at that point, besides walking away? A lengthy Twitter silence isn’t exactly the operatic fury you might have expected from an earlier Fox News, but it’s also pointed in a way you don’t often see in media companies’ dealings with social platforms. Most of Fox News’ peers, I think, would be very wary of stepping away from such an influential distribution network, even if their frustrations were legitimate. (Which, in this case, Fox’s are, in a way that old Ailes tantrums over reporters were not.)

Which helps explain why, even if the boycott is pretty impotent as a punishment, as a symbolic gesture, it’s quite striking. It’s so genuinely weird to see a enormous media corporation abstain from Twitter that it’s hard, really, to blame the conspiracy theorists. Twitter’s status as essential everyday informational infrastructure is so accepted, so unremarkable, that the idea of a media company challenging it on an institutional level is, at first, less believable than the idea that the Justice Department might be involved.

But Rupert Murdoch has generally preferred to fight the mega-platforms of social media as rivals, rather than regard them as neutral features of the landscape. Fox News can’t bully a Twitter into submission, but it’s still found a way to treat it with the same bitter contempt it’s always treated the Times. Frankly, it’s refreshing to see a platform scorned rather than pandered to. That’s why the boycott is so great: Fox News’s legendary contemptuousness is better trained on wealthy and powerful social platforms not abiding by their own rules than it is on newspapers and blogs attempting to report on it. Best of all, Fox News is making the world a better place, in some small way, simply by not tweeting.

Fox News’ Silent War on Twitter