On 14 January 2020, the seventh TV debate was held between the contenders for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential elections of November 2020. The debate was preceded by a public controversy between candidates Elisabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. According to Warren, Sanders had told her that he did not believe that a woman could be elected to be US president - something Sanders denied, but quickly went viral on social media.
Elisabeth Warren's fine clickbait line
Of course, this issue came up during the debate, and Warren used the topic for a passionate argument in favor of the electability of women. According to many observers, she won the debate due to that particular part of it. One specific line, delivered to thunderous acclaim from the audience, came up again and again in comments and was seen as "the line of the evening" by many. Here it is:
"Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women, Amy [Klobuchar] and me."
This is clickbait - intended as such, and with momentous effects as such. It is the perfect tweet, byline and soundbite on news programs. It might well be that Sanders lost the race when Warren pronounced this line - several commentarors speculated on that already. But my interest here is not in the essence of the case or in sorting out the controversy over whether or not Sanders said what Warren alleged to have heard. My interest is in the nature of clickbait and how it works.
Warren spoke the truth ...
The first thing to observe is that Warren's clickbait line was not a lie. The well-known factchecking website PolitiFact went through the trouble of lining up the election results of all 6 participants to the debate - Warren, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Biden, Sanders and Steyer. And indeed, the male contenders in the group had suffered electoral defeat ten times, whereas the female ones - Warren and Klobuchar - had never lost an election.
'Truth' is one of the most heavily weaponized notions in the contemporary political culture, and not just in the US but elsewhere too.
PolitiFact's conclusion was clear: "We checked the electoral histories of the candidates on stage and found that Warren spoke accurately. We rate her statement True." True with a capital T even.
This is not a detail of course. 'Truth' is one of the most heavily weaponized notions in our contemporary political culture, and not just in the US but elsewhere too - think of the recent elections in the UK where 'lies' were a constant topic of media commentary and social media debate. PolitiFact - as I mentioned already - is devoted to factchecking and has trademarked a thing they call the "Truth-o-Meter". Clearly, there is a market for expertise regarding the factual truthfulness of claims made by politicians these days.
The fact that Warren's line is judged 'True' also sets her apart of her potential opponent Donald Trump, whose odd relationship to established facts is by now legendary and amply documented. Being someone who speaks 'the Truth' is not just a political asset: it is perhaps the strongest and most categorical moral judgment of a person one can think of. And 'the Truth' is, consequently, also the thing that provokes our most emotional responses to others. So concluding that Warren's statement was 'True' is more than a routine matter: it is a ratification of her moral correctness and - in a world in which politics is profoundly moralized - of her ability to stand for the highest office.
... but she also twisted it ...
So Warren's statement was not a lie. But it's only 'True' when a very narrow window of factchecking is used: one focused on the literal, decontextualized version of her statement. She claimed that the male participants had together lost ten elections and the female ones had lost none, and yes, this was factually true. And so was PolitiFact's headline in which the male contenders were qualified as "the Democratic debates’ biggest (electoral) losers, by the numbers".
But this 'Truth' is grounded in a fake artithmetic, and this becomes clear when we read the details of PolitiFact's report. They show that Warren and Klobuchar have contested far less elections than Biden and Sanders. Warren was involved in two elections, Klobuchar in five, according to PolitiFact - and they won all of these. But Biden contested eleven elections, losing two. And Sanders trumps them all by a baffling record of twenty-two elections contested, seven of which he lost. This is not unexpected, since Biden and Sanders both started their political careers in 1972, while Klobuchar started in 1998 and Warren only started in 2012.
If any of the contenders deserves the title of serial winner in elections, Sanders wins by about a mile.
But it means that a contextualized reading of Warren's statement compels us to consider other aspects of the track record of the candidates as well. Yes, Biden and Warren are the biggest electoral "losers", but they are simultaneously the biggest electoral winners of the pack. Biden won nine elections, and Sanders fifteen - more than Biden and Warren combined. So if any of the contenders deserves the title of serial winner in elections, Sanders wins it by about a mile.
Warren gave her Truth a bit of a twist. She argued that her male opponents were "losers", and while this claim can stand in the narrow way I outlined earlier, it has two flaws. One: these losers can, by the same logic, be presented as much more impressive winners than Warren. And two: identifying others as "losers" doesn't automatically entail that you are a winner. Her Truth was fragmentary and easily dislodged by counterevidence.
... and she framed it
In addition, we must look at the larger argument in which Warren's line was embedded. As we have seen, the larger argument was about whether or not women would stand a chance as candidates in the US presidential election. And this larger argument is the frame within which the specific line about the male "losers" had its place. So the claim that the male contenders have a record as electoral losers while the female ones don't have such a record must be understood as an element in support of a larger claim: that women can and do win elections, while men can and do lose elections - ergo, a that woman can become president of the USA.
If a clickbait line such as Warren's goes viral, it is because it derives its "load", its metonymic force, from the larger claim it supports. This larger claim continues to operate in the background and can take several concrete shapes. But the clickbait line is always the metonymy for this larger frame, and has little meaning when isolated from it. And this is the discursive anomaly in PolitiFact's "Truth-o-Meter": it detaches statements from the frames in which they operate and from which they draw their impact, and looks for simple "factual" connections between such isolated statements and available evidence - and we have seen how fragmentary and myopic such evidence can be.
If a clickbait line such as warren's goes viral, it is because it derives its "load", its metonymic force, from the larger claim it supports.
In the larger frame, the counterevidence needs to be set off against the evidence invoked by Warren, and a cool judgment of her statement would undoubtedly lead to the critical points I have mentioned here. Warren's claim about electoral losers and winners has a certain 'boomerang' quality and may come back to her in later stages of the race for the White House. Certainly if she would lose the elections.
But of course, in the short run, it allowed her to win the debate and cause a tornado on social media, with possibly permanent damage to the other candidates' image and campaign strategy. For critical reactions to the clickbait line can, and will, be interpreted as attacks against the larger claim. And who in their right state of mind can possibly defend the point that women would not be able to be elected to the highest public office?
And so we begin to understand what clickbait does. True or not, it will always trigger discussions on larger things, and the actual merits of the clickbait line itself rapidly fade into the background of such discussions. Here, once again, we see how naive PolitiFact and other factcheckers are when it comes to political discourse. Political discussions are rarely just about words; usually, they are about the frames triggered by them.