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How to Use a Diminished Twitter in the Elon Era
Twitter is now niche platform with declining relevance, but it still has some uses for communicators
Approximately 100 years ago (2018), I wrote Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump. This was my first book and the goal was to lay out the lessons I learned from working for Barack Obama amidst a rapidly changing media environment and the dangerous MAGA-ification of the Republican Party. In that book, I wrote the following passage:
Despite Twitter’s paltry returns on Wall Street, it is here to stay, and it will only be more important in politics going forward. This means that Democrats, the media, and Twitter need to adjust their approach to reflect a new and dangerous era in politics and try to prevent authoritarian despots like Trump from gaming the new system. If progressives have any hope of taking back this country, we all have to get better at Twitter.
Well, that didn’t age well.
Back then, Twitter felt essential to American politics. Trump had just used the platform to win the presidency. In the White House, he used Twitter to dominate the political conversation. Participating in politics required constant Twitter use.
These days, Twitter is dying before our eyes. In addition to Elon Musk’s erratic stewardship making the service almost impossible to use and filling our feeds with schlocky ads and Musk’s own tweets, the platform no longer feels at the center of politics and media. President Biden is not a big Twitter user (to his credit). Trump dipped out years ago. The most interesting people are either tweeting less or have left the platform altogether. The White supremacists and grifters who were once banned are back in full force. Twitter is less relevant, more difficult to use, and a less pleasant experience. It feels like a party that should’ve ended hours ago, but we are still hanging around because we have nowhere better to go.
It is uncertain if Twitter is “here to stay” as I wrote back then. It is unclear whether Elon Musk has what it takes to keep the lights on financially or technologically.
In the meantime, Twitter still matters. Democrats in office and on the campaign trail will still need to use Elon Musk’s Twitter. It’s not essential, but it matters. To use it right, we have to understand what Twitter is, who it reaches, and what works on the platform.
Know the Audience
There was a palpable sense of panic when Elon Musk completed his purchase of Twitter. Countless people bemoaned the idea that the forum for debate and conversation would be under total control of an online, admittedly “red-pilled” troll with a propensity for conspiracy theories. How would Musk’s ownership affect the discourse? Was this yet another blow to our faltering global economic order?
The fears were correct — in a sense. Musk has been an absolute disaster for the business and usership. Twitter sucks and the modicum of efforts to curb abuse made under previous leadership have been undone. But the impact is far more narrow than folks expected because Twitter is not a global town or even a broad-based social media platform. It’s not a way to reach voters directly or communicate with the public. It’s not a tool for persuasion. Twitter is a circular, insular conversation amongst a tiny slice of the populace that is dominated by political and media elites.
It’s a niche platform.
According to a 2022 study by Pew Research, less than one quarter of American adults use Twitter. That is fewer than the number of adults using Snapchat and LinkedIn! To put Twitter’s paltry usage in perspective, 81% use YouTube and 69% use Facebook.
Sure, but Twitter is the platform for news, right?
About 54% of Twitter’s users turn to the platform to get news, while 44% of Facebook’s much larger user base goes there for news.
Twitter is a niche platform; and not a representative one. Twice as many Twitter users are Democrats than are Republicans. The vast majority of people on Twitter are not participants in this supposedly rollicking town square of debate — 97% of the tweets are produced by 25% of users.
This is what people mean when they say Twitter isn’t real life.
All of this data is pre-Elon, but there is reason to believe that the problem has worsened since the takeover. Shirin Ghaffary reported in Vox:
While Musk claimed in November that Twitter’s user base is bigger than ever, outside data contradicts that claim. According to the data intelligence firm SimilarWeb, Twitter actually had higher traffic in March 2022 — before Musk took over — than it does now, and Twitter saw the growth in the number of visitors decline year over year from 4.7 percent in November 2022, when Musk took over, to -2 percent in Jan 2023.
That data is consistent with people’s anecdotal experiences. There is simply less happening on Twitter every time you open the app.
Who’s on Twitter?
The most important rule in communications is “know your audience.” So who is the audience for a tweet from a politician and political activist? They’re not swing voters or members of the public more broadly. Based on the data above, most people participating in political Twitter are committed partisans. They plan to vote in the next election and know who they are voting for. Therefore, I am unsure who the audience is for some of these overly saccharine, focus-grouped messages designed for persuasion. Even partisans RT those messages until the cows come home; they simply recirculate the message in the same bubble.
Twitter does have some utility for political messengers. The audience is relatively small but disproportionately influential. Twitter being dominated by media types and the politically engaged is a feature, not a bug — if you build strategy and messaging with that in mind.
Therefore, the messaging should be designed to appeal to those who will actually see it — reporters, political supporters, and partisan adversaries. You want to influence what reporters think, write and tweet about; you want to signal to your political allies which messages to amplify. At times, you want to pick a fight with your adversaries in service of the first two.
Ron Klain, the recently departed and very online White House Chief of Staff, took a bunch of undeserved shit from the press about his incessant tweeting. But from my perspective, there was a method to the madness. Ron was using Twitter correctly. He spoke to the right audience. When he was tweeting at every opportunity about falling gas prices, it wasn’t to tell the public to stop complaining. It was to force the press to change the narrative and write about the trajectory of the prices. Ron’s tweets about the economy were more bullish than Biden’s rhetoric on the stump, but once again that was intentional. The point was to get Biden supporters to be more bullish on the economy in their messaging. If Republicans say the economy sucks and Democratic elected and activists don’t vigorously disagree, what do you think the press will write?
Twitter can still be an important part of a communications strategy, but the purpose is much more narrow than we imagined after Trump’s victory.
Who’s Not on Twitter?
More important than knowing who is on Twitter is knowing who isn’t. While this has improved in recent years, too many Democratic politicians allow the conversations on Twitter to share their messaging and policy choices. Despite the oft-repeated cliche, they think Twitter is real life. In a political environment where attention is power, politicians can easily fall victim to the perverse incentives of Twitter. In a very prescient 2019 piece from Vanity Fair, Peter Hamby captured the downsides of this dynamic in the 2020 Democratic primary:
Playing to short-term national attention on Twitter, when it’s off-brand and reactive, is a surefire way to get in trouble. Shortly after launching her campaign “For the People,” Kamala Harris said at a CNN town hall that sure, she would get rid of private insurance companies in pursuit of Medicare-for-All—a statement she quickly modified. John Hickenlooper, who premised his entire political career on his experience as a small business owner in Denver, got himself twisted on cable television by refusing to call himself a capitalist. A host of Democrats, including Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand, embarrassed themselves by rushing to defend disgraced actor Jussie Smollett on Twitter after his staged hate crime in Chicago—with Harris and Booker calling it a “modern-day lynching” without any set of facts at hand … Candidates who make policy-by-Twitter, the ones who chase every micro-news-cycle, risk losing sight not just of what voters care about, but also why they’re running for president in the first place.
Put another way, trying to “win Twitter” is a surefire way to lose. Just as Trump won the 2016 GOP nomination because he dominated Twitter, Joe Biden won the 2020 Democratic nomination in part because he avoided Twitter. Compared to some of his more progressive and digitally talented competitors, Joe Biden was never going to be Twitter’s most popular candidate. But Biden’s campaign also understood that the majority of Democratic primary voters were a) not on Twitter and b) more moderate (or at least focused on different things) than the people on Twitter.
Put another way, Twitter is a decent platform for speaking. It is a terrible platform for listening. For politicians who want mass appeal, share your ideas on Twitter; don’t form your ideas on Twitter.