How Twitter has changed politics — and political journalism

November 7, 2013

Twitter is now a publicly traded stock. But long before any Tom, Dick or Harry (or Ron) could buy stock in Twitter, the micro-blogging service was in the process of fundamentally reshaping the way in which politics is practiced and covered. The changes, which are still in process, are profound -- in the way that politicians interact (or don't) with reporters, the life cycle of news cycles and how the general public gets (or doesn't) its information.

Twitter has been around for seven years. It went public today. But it seems some politicians still can't quite use it properly. We look at some of their deleted tweets. (The Washington Post)

CNN's Peter Hamby has done what we take to be the definitive work in this space in a paper entitled "Did Twitter kill the Boys on the Bus?" that he wrote during a semester as a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Hamby's paper runs 95 pages. You should read the whole thing, but in the event you don't, here are the key quotes from it as well as a few of our own thoughts.

* "It's become the new conventional wisdom setter, and that conventional wisdom gets amplified as well, because you have editors sitting in bureaus watching this stuff. When everything is in 140 characters, it gives a skewed version of reality, and that impacts how editors think about what reporters should be covering, and it impacts what reporters think is  important.”

That quote, from Associated Press political editor Liz Sidoti, is a telling one.  As WaPo's Dan Balz noted in his terrific campaign book "Collision 2012," the conventional wisdom surrounding any political event -- particularly presidential debates -- was set by Twitter even as the event was happening. By the time the debate ended, political Twitter had rendered its judgment on who won, who lost and why. There's no question that political Twitter reinforces a sort of groupthink -- since everyone in the D.C. bubble is following everyone else 0n Twitter; it's an electronic echo chamber.  And that echo chamber often forgets that just 8 percent of the public gets its news from Twitter and only 16 percent of the public uses Twitter at all.

* “No offense to CNN.com, there is a lot of traffic there, but I can go to Robert Costa and I can take his link off The Corner on the National Review and I can generate as much news out of The Corner. Now with Twitter, you can make your own news and put it up on your Twitter feed.”

This is a quote from an anonymous staffer for Mitt Romney's campaign -- and gets at the new realities of how, why and to whom political operatives dole out their information. Twenty years ago, a campaign would need to go through one of the broadcast networks or places like the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal to get major coverage for a story. The onset of the Internet changed that, allowing political operatives to use smaller news outlets and, eventually, partisan news outlets to push stories into the public arena. Matt Rhoades, who managed Romney's 2012 campaign, grasped that changed reality far earlier than most. ("A link is a link," he told Hamby. "I've said this a million times. I used to say it going back to, like, 2004.") The emergence of Twitter altered the calculus of how to disseminate information even further. Now, a good tidbit leaked to someone with a strong social media following in the political world could immediately become a "thing" -- no matter whether the tweeter was affiliated with a particular news outlet or no news outlet at all.

* "Reporters, [Rhoades] saw, seemed to care about self-promotion, clicks and buzz as much as the journalism they were supposed to be practicing."

In an era where everyone is a "brand," the danger is that the brand becomes more important than the journalism. There's no question that Twitter has fed the already-rampant navel-gazing tendencies of political reporters. We can't even count the number of conversations -- many of which we start -- that center around this basic sentence: "Did you see what fill-in-the-blank-person tweeted? I am going to retweet it." (It reads even worse than it sounds!) Like with all good things, there is such a thing as too much Twitter.

* "It started to feel like with Twitter you had to chase every little thing. Sometimes, all the editor sitting in front of the computer screen knows is that this tweet just came past their eyes and they want you to match that. And all your time is spent racing toward nothing.”

That quote comes from Ashley Parker of the New York Times. (Fun fact: Ashley's Twitter handle reads "I remain skeptical about Twitter.") And it speaks to the fact that Twitter has made the difference between mountains and molehills in the context of a political campaign virtually indistinguishable. EVERYTHING is seen as a big deal -- worthy of analysis. (Yes, the Fix is as guilty as analyzing things to death as the next blogger.)  That mountains=molehills mentality means that readers/users/viewers often have trouble distinguishing the major from the mundane. Here's the problem from a reporter's perspective: There's almost always no way of really knowing what molehills might become mountains in an hour, a day or a week. Because of that reality, you have to monitor everything in the event that what looks like a small deal becomes a big deal. That's nothing new in journalism, but what Twitter has done is exponentially increase the number of small things you need to watch.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Ed O'Keefe · November 7, 2013