Virality and virulence

Oct 19 2019

This week I was reminded anew of the promise and peril of tweeting right after your morning coffee. And in the process I was reminded (not that I really needed it) of Twitter’s tribal nature. 

On Friday morning, just as the caffeine was taking full effect, and I was settling in to work on this newsletter, I fatefully took a look at my Twitter feed. I saw that Hillary Clinton, in an interview, had suggested that Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia to be a third-party spoiler candidate, and that Jill Stein, who played that role last time around, was “also” (like Gabbard, that is) a “Russian asset.” 

That’s pretty extreme. As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly knows, and as Wikipedia confirms, the term “asset,” in that context, is typically taken to mean that the person in question isn’t just being exploited by a foreign power but is consciously and secretly cooperating. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t typically “groomed” without being aware of it.

Now, my opinion of Jill Stein—like my opinion of Ralph Nader ever since his third party candidacy got George W. Bush elected president—is low. And I’m not a big Gabbard supporter. I like much of what she says about foreign policy, but I also find her in some ways offputtingly quirky. (For example: She replied to Hillary’s conspiracy theory with a kind of conspiracy theory of her own. And, though I’d like to think this was sly commentary on Hillary’s seeming paranoia, I fear it wasn’t—and if it was, I think it was too subtle for its own good.)

But, all that said, there are few things that trigger me more than McCarthyism, and Hillary’s accusations struck me as a clear case of it. So, with what in retrospect seems like remarkably little reflection, I tweeted: “Hillary now has two respectable options: either provide evidence to back this up or apologize to Stein and Gabbard. Anything else is an indictment of her character.” 

That last line was the coffee talking. I mean, I stand by it, kind of, but it’s a little on the Olympian side. Come to think of it, so was the first line.

Anyway, I quickly saw that I was being “ratioed”—that is, the ratio of replies to retweets and likes was pretty high, which is often a sign of negative reaction. Further exploration confirmed the negativity. 

I did enough interacting with my critics to discern that by and large they either (1) thought that Jill Stein’s having sat at a dinner table with Vladimir Putin, or Tulsi Gabbard’s having met with Bashar al-Assad (whom she also called a “brutal dictator,” by the way), were conclusive evidence of conspiracy; or (2) insisted that Hillary wasn’t suggesting conspiracy—the former Secretary of State, apparently, was using the term “Russian asset” in a way it’s not typically used in the State Department. 

It’s amazing how unpleasant widespread criticism can be even when you’re convinced that the critics are confused. This was a kind of suffering that even caffeine couldn’t overcome.

My coalescing regret over having tweeted was about to morph into sustained self-reproach when…the cavalry arrived! A low but persistent level of retweeting had, via the magic of Twitter’s secret algorithm, moved my tweet into a friendlier part of the opinion ecosystem. By the end of the day I had more than 500 retweets and more than 2,000 likes—a lot by my standards—and hundreds of replies, most of them supportive. 

Which, I admit, cheered me up. But here’s what was depressing: To judge by the replies, at least, pretty much nobody—my critics or my supporters—was motivated by opposition to McCarthyism per se. They were either Gabbard haters or Stein haters or Hillary lovers, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, Gabbard lovers or Stein lovers or Hillary haters. For example: at least 100 of the 300+ replies consisted of people picking up on my phrase “indictment of her character” and deploying some variation on the theme that Hillary has no character. And a few people said other unflattering things about her (occasionally in ways that appealed to my sophomoric sense of humor).

But the main point is that almost every reply, whether from critics or supporters, involved a negative characterization—and usually not a very high-minded one—of one of the three players: Hillary, Gabbard, or Stein. It was an example of a phenomenon that is said to have grown greatly in the US in recent years: “negative partisanship”—tribal solidarity motivated largely by hatred of the other tribe. And the fact that in this case the word “partisanship” is misleading—that the tribal divide didn’t correspond exactly to the Democrat-Republican divide—isn’t much consolation.  

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