The Twitter bubble has allowed Democrats to defy political gravity

There’s a fully autonomous ecosystem of far-right influencers and followers on Twitter and Facebook. We know it spreads misinformation and prejudice, but less thought is given to the ways such an ecosystem creates ghost movements, where a few motivated obsessives can make a cause appear far more popular than it actually is. Time and time again, research has shown how easy it is to shape these information silos and how few accounts are really needed to make such an impact.

The downstream effects here are quite dangerous, especially when it comes to empowering extremism of the online extreme. Ahead of the election, many ostensibly serious political commentators like Matthew Yglesias suggested that the Democratic Party should cater to those with “scruples” about trans rights, as they believed the issue would cost Democrats crucial votes. But no red tsunami of anti-trans backlash materialized on Election Day. The belief of men like Yglesias in this silent majority that they would vote decisively on this issue is fueled by online discourse that dramatically emphasizes it. The far-right Twitter bubble, in all its recursive fury, is partly to blame, of course. But it also leaks out in traditional sources.

Just this week, the New York Times published another story raising “concerns” about puberty blockers being taken by trans children. Christina Jewett, one of two reporters with a byline on the article, was she quickly revealed that she follows a number of prominent anti-trans influencers on Twitter– while it is not unusual for journalists to cover a range of voices, it is notable that she has focused on this minority fringe, while following virtually no transgender person or group which would have been far more relevant for an article of such a broad reach. Anti-trans extremists he returned the favor by promoting and complimenting the article.

The feedback loop here, between loud influencers and mainstream journalists/experts, has troubling implications. While the GOP’s ruthless attempt to weaponize trans people has turned off most voters, it has still created and sustained a climate of prejudice. The shattering depression caused by the constant drumbeat of demoralizing speech discussing your own right to exist should not be underestimated. And the laws that to have posed as this moral panic is affecting real people in material ways. In this way, a small minority of bigots in an echo chamber actually managed to shape public order and hurt a number of innocent people.

The dense networks of anti-trans extremists we see on Twitter conspire to fabricate consensus in a single 21st Fashion of the century. Cheap, no less. When they meet in person, the paucity of their numbers is as evident as the day; online they are better able to shadowbox well above their weight class by swarming with individual targets. The result is the illusion of a crowd. After all, if you’re an individual trans person who’s being harassed by ten or twenty different accounts spewing transphobic bile all over you, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. But even if all those accounts were authentic (almost a guarantee), they would look far more pathetic if they were deployed in person at a protest.

The trick here is to convince people that these online trolls are just the tip of a larger ideological iceberg, giving voice to a silent majority of citizens for whom child genital inspection is their top priority in a year of war, pestilence and a constant cost of life crisis. And the all-important second half of that step two it is the laundering of excruciatingly self-referential Twitter discourse among this pantomime minority at major outlets desperate for what media critic Jack Shafer memorably termed “bogus trending stories.”

Thankfully we have all been treated to an explosive example of how grossly misaligned perception and reality are here. Instead, a political environment tailored to Republican success at every level of government led to one embarrassing defeat after another because their candidates were looking to win on MAGA Twitter rather than at every other household’s kitchen tables. Not hopelessly addicted to the platform and its many sad imitators.

There is something darkly poetic about the fact that the Republican Party’s embrace of Twitter is slowly suffocating it; after all, they deserve each other.

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