screen time

Twitter Will Drive Conservatives Mad — and Further Right

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images

Twitter’s lurch to the right has been neither subtle nor hard to explain. After Elon Musk’s acquisition, numerous banned far-right accounts were reinstated. Musk himself has become clearer about his own politics, regularly railing against the “woke mind virus” and frequently promoting right-wing accounts and content. The platform’s recomposed class of paid blue checks is conspicuously right-leaning and includes influential figures who previously feared being, or were, banned under old policies and leadership.

As Twitter has embraced the right, the right has embraced Twitter. Tucker Carlson, who was suddenly dumped from his top-rated Fox News show, is planning a new one for Twitter. Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire has announced plans to stream its entire slate of shows on the platform. On Tuesday, Ron DeSantis preannounced that his presidential campaign would formally launch in a Twitter Space chat with Elon Musk moderated by investor David Sacks.

At The Atlantic, Charlie Warzel, who has described Twitter-era Musk as a “far-right activist,” suggested that Twitter itself had become a “far-right social network,” indistinguishable from the likes of Parler (RIP) and Donald Trump’s Truth Social except for its size. At Axios, Sara Fischer argued Twitter has become the new “center of media gravity for the Republican Party,” and anointed Elon Musk the new Rupert Murdoch.

Is it? Is he? Maybe, sure! These are transformations in progress, so there’s a bit of waiting and seeing to do, but Twitter is clearly becoming both materially more conservative and more central to the conservative movement as it exists. What happens next should be obvious, as it’s already underway. The American conservative movement is going to become terminally online. Twitter, for reasons beyond its owner, is going to drag the Republican Party further to the right.

Democrats will recognize the contours of this argument, having recently and miserably hashed it out themselves. For years, but with particular intensity leading up to the 2020 primaries, many in and beyond the party’s left flank were accused of being too online — a phenomenon that was seen as moving the center of the entire party’s discourse and practical politics several ticks to the left. This was often a way for moderates and incumbents to suggest that their critics and challengers were overly focused on activist causes at the expense of alienating voters. As a tactic, meeting “ABOLISH ICE” with “Twitter is not real life” was sometimes a way to dismiss disagreements about policy and messaging as beneath consideration or to recast grassroots movements as out-of-touch hobbies of Twittering elites. It also corresponded approximately with deep generational and ideological divides within the party that were temporarily quieted, although not resolved and maybe even deepened, with the election of Joe Biden, whose campaign was proudly and pointedly aloof from social media.

The critique, however, did refer to something real. Twitter, which is basically a system in which millions of people are constantly interrupting each other, is a comprehensively antagonistic political environment and can act, in some situations, as an ideological ratchet. It is functionally and experientially fleeting; a place where, for the many powerful people who were drawn to it, outside criticism is harder to avoid or ignore; a platform where novel and urgent calls for change, in the broadest sense, tend to prevail over repetitive defenses of the status quo. More than any other of its social-media contemporaries — and more than the traditional media over which it also exerted interesting and sometimes vexing influence — it’s a space of constant contestation. Its accessibility and promise of proximity to power made it a useful platform for mounting rhetorical insurgencies of virtually any stripe, whether they’re seeking recognition from a political party that would rather ignore them, briefly drawing mass attention to an esoteric cause, or, say, rallying support for an actual military insurgency.

I don’t mean to overcomplicate this. Twitter was a good place for yelling at people, and the comment section for the rest of the internet. It’s a pretty effective omnidirectional radicalizer on matters both serious and utterly trivial, for users operating in good faith or as trolls; some of the same traits and features that made it a valuable venue for marginalized voices have been exploited by people who wish to remarginalize them. It’s a place where you are never that far from someone you might think is wrong or terrible, or from someone who thinks the same of you. This is an animating feature of the platform and a source of its real-world power.

Twitter didn’t end up taking over the Democratic Party, but the platform indisputably shifted some attention and rhetorical power to its members and critics on the left, who leveraged it as best as they could, and who will lose real influence as it becomes more hostile to their presence. Had the Democratic Party been more institutionally responsive or even just more exposed to the causes it ended up dismissing as “online,” whether it was fair to characterize them that way, it would have been pulled to the left.

The Republican Party of 2023 is arguably already more online than the Democrats of 2019. The whole world is more online, for one. The Trump years were almost surreally Twitter-centric, given the president’s obsession with the platform; now, culture warriors like DeSantis are racing to give legislative and legal force to fringe right-wing crusades that first gathered steam online. For weeks, the biggest story in the hyperonline conservative media has been about Anheuser-Busch hiring a trans woman to make Bud Light spon-con on TikTok, an issue that at least one presidential candidate has already addressed on the campaign trail. The 2022 midterms saw Republican candidates run with dour “anti-woke” messaging that, in the end, didn’t seem to connect as well with actual voters as it had with the sorts of people who spend their days tweeting wishes for dictatorship between posts about Target’s Pride Month displays.

Already, some conservatives are self-consciously approaching the question of whether or not the Republicans are becoming too online. I’m not the audience, but the sheer awkwardness and inscrutability of the DeSantis–Musk–Sacks Twitter Space can’t have felt great for anyone involved, including Musk, whose platform promptly crashed.

Still, their objections are muted, qualified, and, as they surely know, basically futile — unlike their centrist Democratic counterparts, they’ve already lost. Even before Musk’s interventions, Twitter demonstrated a tendency to pull the parts of the conservative movement most exposed to it to the right. It was a place where the actual president, as well as people advising and sympathetically covering him, were heavily and constantly exposed to a cast of Twitter-successful conspiracy theorists, doomsaying anonymous fascists, and a ruthless new class of apocalyptic culture warriors. It was a place where mainstream conservative Twitter timelines were rarely more than a retweet or two removed from full-on QAnon content, at least until Twitter’s previous leadership decided they’d had enough, which arguably set Musk’s acquisition in motion.

Today, many of those same characters are still there or have returned and have been joined by new ones. (The crucial exception here is Trump himself, whose return would alter the platform in unpredictable ways, especially given the presence of a new main-character-boss figure, but whose continued absence could also, depending on how the primaries go, doom it to political irrelevance.) They’ve been given various institutional signals to go for it. They will, and it will work — Twitter is nothing if not an effective tool for enforcing ideological discipline. A direct embrace of the platform mostly just shortens the party’s political supply chain, bringing it closer to a narrow but already influential slice of its base, populated by people who, among other things, seem to be getting a little fed up with representative government.

The more exposure conservative politicians, media personalities, former TV hosts, executives, and regular users have to Twitter, the more frequently and intensely they will encounter and confront the most extreme factions in their own movement, which they will find impossible to quiet, difficult to resist, or tempting to join.

Whether this is a path to power or irrelevance, I have no idea. But for now, it’s the path Republicans are on. For some, this sense of acceleration might be unsettling. For others, it’s the whole point.

Twitter Will Drive Conservatives Mad — and Further Right