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Opinion How Twitter became the media of America’s left

The Twitter logo is displayed on an iPhone. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)
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The refrain “Twitter is not real life” is meant to be a criticism of the platform, and those who use it, as overly liberal and activist and not representative of everyday Americans. But I always think: “No, it’s not — and thank God for that.” Twitter has filled a huge void for people such as me who prefer more left-wing politicians such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) over more moderate Democrats and want to see the country move aggressively in a more progressive direction.

In fact, Twitter is in many ways America’s true left-wing news outlet. But the benefits of Twitter for the left also come with some costs.

You might wonder why the left needs Twitter — after all, Republicans argue the news media is basically a left-wing propaganda machine. That’s nonsense, of course. I would concede that it’s unlikely many journalists voted for Donald Trump, and major media outlets in America are usually based in large cities and their employees generally share those cities’ cultural values, such as supporting same-sex marriage. But mainstream outlets including The Post, the New York Times and NPR explicitly seek to appeal to Republicans, too, sometimes falling into flawed “both sides” coverage along the way. On top of that, most traditional news organizations have a centrist, pro-status-quo bias that comes from them being generally owned by wealthy people or major corporations and staffed largely by upper-income people. So news coverage from those organizations tends to suggest that left-wing Democrats such as Sanders and Warren are out of the mainstream, an approach tilted toward centrism that I think helped Joe Biden win last year’s Democratic presidential primaries.

MSNBC, while being pretty Democratic, isn’t as dominant a media source for liberals as Fox News is on the right. And it, too, often hews to an establishment-friendly, status quo coverage.

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So while there is a lot of media that appeals to center-left Democrats, Twitter has filled a gap for more progressive Democrats. This happened basically by accident. It’s not clear that Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who co-founded the company in 2006, is that much more personally liberal than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. But nonetheless, in the early 2010s, Twitter became such a popular place for Black Americans to discuss culture, politics and everything else that “Black Twitter” became a major phenomenon. Rather than relying on mainstream media, many of the activists who were part of the Black Lives Matter movement used Twitter to organize protests and describe the movement’s goals. Twitter also became a place where journalists and academics of all races posted not just their work but also their personal thoughts. And many of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of Twitter, as with other new technologies, were young. Any platform drawing heavily on that mix of people was bound to become an important platform on the left.

It’s not that people over 50 or conservatives don’t like Twitter (see Trump, Donald) or that every young person is on Twitter. But about 75 percent of Twitter users are under 50, while only about half of the adult population overall is that young, according to the Pew Research Center. Facebook, in contrast, doesn’t have a big age disparity. About 70 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds use Facebook, but so do about 70 percent of people 50 to 64, according to Pew. Just 18 percent of those between 50 and 64 use Twitter.

What has become more clear is that in some ways Twitter isn’t just a media platform for those on the political left, but the media platform for the most progressive Democrats. Plenty of very progressive people consume The Post, the Times, NPR and other mainstream publications. But Twitter is often the place they first look for news each day.

That’s in part because it’s a great way to get information that isn’t biased toward that centrist, pro-status-quo perspective. I have worked most of my life at very established, traditional institutions (Time magazine, NBC News, now The Post). Twitter has allowed me to build a national network of people with more left-wing and non-traditional interests and perspectives who weren’t likely to be hired or fit into a traditional news organization. And that’s been so valuable — I have a set of colleagues to collaborate and share ideas with, even if they don’t work at the same place I do. So, no, it’s “not real life.” And because so many journalists are on Twitter, left-wing ideas that start there quickly find their way into mainstream media. With Twitter, “issues and concerns of younger and more left-leaning Democrats that used to be relegated have a better chance at being elevated,” said Meredith Conroy, a political scientist at California State University at San Bernardino.

It is hard to imagine the recent ascendance of Black Lives Matter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and "the Squad,” or ideas such as reparations and wealth taxes, without Twitter. But AOC and BLM are still minority voices, not only in America but within the Democratic Party, too. The candidates who supported wealth taxes (Warren, Sanders) didn’t win in 2020. And that goes to the limits of Twitter for the left.

First, it’s a medium that doesn’t reach many older Democrats. I tend to think that many Americans will always prefer their news in articles or broadcasts instead of 280-character updates. And in our current media environment, that means that younger Democrats are on Twitter, where left-wing ideas such as reparations, wealth taxes and adding justices to the Supreme Court are discussed favorably, while older Democrats are hearing from NPR and the New York Times how these ideas are risky and controversial.

It will always be hard for a Bernie Sanders to defeat a Joe Biden if older Democrats mostly get news more oriented toward Biden’s point of view. To truly compete, the left needs more broadcast and traditional-style news media to reach those older Democrats. But it’s also hard to imagine a truly left-wing media outlet ever being as big and influential as NPR or The Post or the Times. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is that the real audience for a left-wing news outlet — younger Democrats — already has Twitter.

“If you’re following politics, you don’t have to choose between Slate, Atlantic or Vox,” said Shannon McGregor, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of media and journalism. “If you just go on Twitter, you are likely to find the most appealing articles from those publications.”

And maybe that’s okay. Twitter has both democraticized and diversified my information diet — I read a lot of articles and tweets each day, and I don’t necessarily consider those that appear in long-standing mainstream outlets more important than those from any other institution, or even from people not affiliated with an institution at all. Thanks to Twitter, many on the left are better informed than they might have been otherwise.

And that makes them better and sharper at criticizing those in power and demanding change. But it also might ensure that governing power on the Democratic side is always in the hands of Biden-style Democrats.