Twitter politics

Twitter politics: the next stage

6 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

We live in the age of Twitter Politics. Twitter's role as a forum and instrument for contemporary politics is rapidly developing. We already know that Donald Trump's is the first "Twitter-based presidency", that there is a synergetic relationship between Trump's tweets and his speech style, and that moments of high political tension involve heated tweetstorms in which new norms for political tweetology are set and contested. Two recent incidents can be added to the evolving description of Twitter politics. Both incidents followed in the wake of the American drone attack which killed the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020.

Governance by Twitter

As we know, the lethal drone attack was ordered by president Trump himself. And as soon as reports of the attack became breaking news, a controversy erupted over the legality of such a dramatic action. It was argued that the attack could be seen as an act of war requiring congressional endorsement, and that Trump's unilateral decision (made at his holiday resort in Mar-a-Lago, Florida) could be seen as a violation of the War Powers Resolution. Congress was officially informed about the attack by the White House on January 4.

But things got worse when, on January 4, the president used Twitter to announce further military action if Iran should decide to retaliate.

Trump's "52 targets" tweets.

Especially the reference to "Iranian culture" became the topic of intense debate, as deliberate strikes against cultural heritage targets might constitute war crimes. Here, too, members of Congress insisted that the president should be held to account by them.

Then, on January 5, this tweet was sent:

Trump's "legal notice" to Congress

It is, to put it mildly, a weird message. As we know, Trump uses a private Twitter account as his main channel, not the official presidential Twitter account @POTUS. The latter, in fact, mostly offers retweets of messages posted on Trump's private account. Through this unofficial channel, by means of a tweet, Trump serves "legal notice" to the US Congress, informing the lawmakers of his plans as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. And the message concludes quite incoherently with an assertion that this notification is not required but served nonetheless.

From his private Twitter account, by means of a tweet, Trump serves "legal notice" to the US Congress.

Needless to say, there is no precedent for this, and it is highly doubtful whether a tweet (made available to all of Trump's 70 million followers) satisfies the formal requirements of "legal notice" to Congress. In fact, it is not unlikely that there is nothing "legal" about this "notice" at all. But the point here is that Trump appears to move from a "Twitter presidency" to "Twitter governance". Twitter here is no longer just the vehicle for communicating the president's political "message" - it has become an instrument for formal bureaucratic procedures regulating the communcaition between the president and other branches of government. Or (and let us not dismiss that possibility) to ridicule such procedures.

I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Micromonitoring Twitter likes

The second incident involves Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC), someone who (in barely one year) rose to absolute stardom in Washington DC and beyond, and whose superb social media work set new standards for political communication and public mobilization.  

Consider this tweet from 6 January 2020.

AOC called out over "unlike", 6 January 2020.

We can try to reconstruct the events. Apparently, Ocasio-Cortez liked a tweet sent by Lebanese-American journalist Rania Khalek - someone who strongly supports Iran in the present conflict with the US. This "like" must have been detected by other parties in the debate, and AOC got called out for it by Iranian-Canadian writer Marya Neyeb Yazdi. The latter is highly critical of the present Iranian regime (expressing sympathies for the deposed Pahlavi dynasty) and endorses the US military action leading to the death of Soleimani. This, then, led to personal correspondence between AOC and Yazdi (reported in the tweet) and to AOC "unliking" Khalek's message. This unliking was noticed by critical filmmaker Dan Cohen, whose comment on the incident was finally picked up by Rania Khalek as an instance of "capitulation to censorial pro war bullies" and as a sign of political weakness by Ocasio-Cortez and her team.

Very small gestures such as likes appear to be intensely monitored and politically interpreted as highly meaningful moves in the public debate.

It is generally quite difficult to find a faux pas in AOC's social media communication; all of it is, as a rule, carefully planned and meticulously executed with an eye for precision and detail. Of course, whatever she does attracts heavy flak from her political opponents. But criticism from people broadly situated on her side of the political argument - as is the case here - is very rare. Now, issues such as Iran's regime and its relationships with other countries are a political minefield of sorts, and this was later invoked as an excuse for her erratic like-unlike behavior.

The excuse for AOC's unliking

But the point here is the smallness of the case. We are talking about a like turned into an unlike on Twitter, and the thing is that such very small gestures appear to be intensely monitored and politically interpreted as highly meaningful moves in the public, consequential debate. Small interactional gestures have been turned into highly charged indexicals betraying fundamental political positions.

Twitter in 2020

In these two incidents we notice two different dimensions. In the case of Trump's "legal notice" to Congress, we see how small and essentially informal, unofficial acts on Twitter can be inflated, made much bigger and turned into acts of governance - or at least, we have seen an attempt towards such an inflation. 

In AOC's like-unlike case, we saw how huge significance can be attributed to the smallest of acts. It wasn't because of a tweet by AOC got called out, it was because of the much smaller gesture of adding a like to someone else's tweet. So while one case points upwards from tweets to supra-tweet phenomena, so to speak, the second case points downwards from tweets to sub-tweet phenomena.

It goes to show that Twitter will continue to develop in 2020 as a major forum for the normative regulation of political communication. It is on Twitter that we see intense moralizations affecting every aspect of activity on the medium, and I see expansion and intensification in the process. This happens in spite of Twitter's very severe limitations: it is and remains a clumsy and very constraining medium, the reach of which is relatively small compared to media such as Facebook or Instagram (to name just those). A lot of what goes on on Twitter will continue to define and format politics as we know it.