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Essential Politics: Twitter is 15. How 140 characters unleashed a 'firehose' we can't turn off – Los Angeles Times

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This is the March 24, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

The first-ever tweet was remarkably benign. On March 21, 2006, Twitter chief executive and co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted a simple message to no one: “just setting up my twttr.”

Twitter wouldn’t go live to the public for months. It would be years before then-President Trump introduced policy, set off diplomatic crises and fired staffers — all by tweets, a first for a president. In 2006, early critics were dismissing the platform as narcissistic and frivolous. How much can you really say with 140 characters?

Plenty, it turns out.

What we understand now is that social media upsets the traditional relationship between leaders and their voters, compressing the distance and removing the filters between them.

For better or worse, decisions that shape policy and politics can be influenced by retweets, and hashtags can launch movements (think #MeToo). Members of Congress like Georgia Republican and conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have risen to national prominence in part through their posts. Campaigns now hire staff to manage their social media.

It’s a new American playbook embraced by both parties. On Twitter’s 15th birthday, we ask: Why is the platform so popular with the political establishment?

I invited three colleagues to discuss Twitter’s appeal and legacy. Politics reporter Seema Mehta has covered presidential campaigns for The Times for more than a decade, including 2020. Matt Pearce is also fresh off covering the 2020 election and now writes about internet culture and podcasting. And Sam Dean is a reporter on The Times’ technology team.

Our conversation follows. It has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.

LAURA: In 15 years, Twitter has grown into a massive cultural presence, but it didn’t start that way. When did you first take notice of Twitter as a platform for politics?

SEEMA: During the 2010 California governor’s and senate races — the campaigns were using Twitter to reach out to voters, to promote their policy proposals and to try to shape the narrative about the races. At first I thought I would be a lurker and not really use Twitter that much. Tens of thousands of tweets later, that certainly has not proven to be true!

MATT: My first experience with Twitter as a real political force was during the Arab Spring in 2011, when I was covering the Egyptian uprising and saw how activists were using the space to rally against the regime. It echoed how Occupy Wall Street activists were using the platform in the U.S. It was an insurgent format.

SAM: Right, exactly — I remember the Arab Spring being the moment when “Twitter as politics” really took on steam, Twitter as something that might be more legitimate than just anonymous eggs sniping from the sidelines. Twitter as a company has also really leaned on that image in the past decade — as a righteous cause — at the core of its business model (which is ultimately just getting us hooked on scrolling and selling ads.)

SEEMA: The 2012 presidential campaign was when I really began using it heavily. I was covering the Romney campaign at the time, and what struck me was how the campaign used to monitor the tweets of the reporters covering him, to see and respond in real time to how the narrative was developing. They didn’t have to wait until our stories posted or were aired.

LAURA: What about this platform is so attractive? Far more of the country spends its time on Facebook, for example, but lawmakers seem to have this strong affinity for Twitter.

MATT: Information is one of the most important currencies in politics (along with another currency, the U.S. dollar), and Twitter is an information firehose. When you’re logged in, you’re jacked into the Matrix.

SAM: I think there’s also something to the purity of the format that helps things break through. On Facebook, the default format is an image, or a link to an article, whereas on Twitter a clear message can really stand out without being crowded by baby photos and free couches.

Twitter is a lot smaller than Facebook or Instagram — Twitter has 192 million daily users worldwide, while Snapchat has 265 million, Instagram has more than 500 million, and Facebook has an incredible 1.85 billion. But if you drill down on the American media landscape, Twitter has a much larger potential audience than cable news.

About 37 million Americans are on Twitter daily, according to the company’s financial reports, whereas the primetime news viewership of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC combined barely tops 10 million each night. Most Twitter users are siloed into their information bubbles, but when a tweet goes truly viral — as tweets from politicians and especially the former president often did — the reach is huge, and immediate.

SEEMA: While a lot of “real people” aren’t on Twitter, the political world is. So you know your message is being heard by reporters, TV bookers, etc.

LAURA: That kind of powerful access can go both ways. Sometimes it’s useful, but there can be major offline political consequences, too, as we’ve learned in the past four years. Do you all feel like offline politics have changed?

SEEMA: I fear that it can create groupthink. And also that people can lose sight of how Twitter isn’t necessarily reflective of how voters feel.

MATT: One of the wildest things you can do as a journalist is spend a lot of time absorbing conventional wisdom on Twitter and then go interview a bunch of voters at a campaign event. Totally different worlds.

SAM: This might be taking too much of a software-as-destiny approach, but there is something to the interactivity and group harassment that you can make happen on Twitter that seems to have flowed back into the real world.

Before, if a politician was on talk radio or a TV news show, the fans at home could pump their fists and contemplate grinding their political enemies into dust, but they couldn’t actually all show up on someone’s Twitter feed in that moment and start harassing them. The ability of politicians and political actors to give people something immediate to do, that forms a stronger group identity around dunking and DMing and harassing people off the internet. I think that has added a certain bloodthirstiness.

LAURA: Right, and then there’s a figure like Trump — a president who embraced both the online and offline. He found a strong base of voter support, but was also deeply tied to Twitter.

MATT: Twitter, in terms of followers and engagement, rewards personalities. And there was no bigger personality than Trump. Compare that to President Biden, who ran one of the lowest-key presidential campaigns ever, and who won with a record number of votes.

SEEMA: President Trump was incredibly effective at using Twitter to bypass the media and speak directly to his supporters. But it’s also dangerous. Because he was able to spread information that was not true — like that the election was stolen — and there was no fact-checking until Twitter eventually kicked him off the platform.

SAM: One of my favorite takes (read on Twitter, of course) on the Trump rhetorical style was that he had the cadences and instincts of a borscht belt comedian working for a right-wing tabloid. And one of the first professional communities besides journalists to really lean into Twitter were comedians. And I think Trump’s way of talking and thinking fell right in the sweet spot of what works on Twitter. But as Seema points out, something “working” in a medium doesn’t mean it’s working for … society. Which is why Twitter eventually kicked him off!

LAURA: Speaking of Trump’s ban, how do you all see Twitter’s new approach playing out? After years of criticism, they’ve finally introduced new moderation standards, but is this a situation they can still control after 15 years — and do they even want to? After banning Trump from Twitter, Dorsey said he worried that precedent “will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet.”

SEEMA: I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle.

SAM: The company was really flailing in the days leading up to the election and then around the storming of the Capitol on Jan 6. I had to track the shifting terms of service and flagging/fact-checking/deleting/spread-limiting policies, and the overall picture was of a company tying itself into knots to avoid making a serious decision about the risk that politicians like Trump posed to human lives and the basic rule of law in the country.

The company will say that new standards have been put in place, but it’s hard to know how that will play out when the rubber hits the road, and another fire breathing, lie-spreading public figure amasses millions of followers on the platform. I think the ability to control is there, at least in very high-profile cases. It is just a question of whether they want to.

MATT: It says something about Twitter’s power that as soon as they banned the president, our political discourse suddenly felt a lot different. Which is unsettling. The president should be able to speak. At the same time, the president shouldn’t be encouraging his followers to thwart a free and fair election. It’s a mess.

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A very brief history of politics and Twitter

President Obama is often credited as the first online president. His use of social media was so prolific, it has its own Wikipedia page.

He joined Twitter as @BarackObama in March 2007, and sent what are likely his first tweets that May. Obama was the first president to have a Twitter account and his administration marked the launch of the official @POTUS account on May 18, 2015, setting the precedent for administrations to come.

To date, Obama’s @BarackObama account remains the most followed account on the platform, with more than 130 million followers.

But Obama wasn’t the first major U.S. politician to embrace Twitter. Determining that kind of milestone with certainty is difficult on a platform with so much traffic, but one thing is certain: Former Sen. John Edwards, the disgraced North Carolinian who was Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee and a two-time presidential candidate, has Obama beat.

A CQ Weekly story from April 7, 2007, reports that Edwards thanked well-wishers via Twitter for their support amid his wife’s cancer recurrence. At the time, Edwards was considered “far and away the leading adopter of technology in either major party’s presidential field.” The story is a delightful time capsule, harkening back to an era when the platform had to be described as “the real-time messaging service known as Twitter,” and “tweet” wasn’t yet a verb.

Twitter introduced account verification in 2009 — name-checking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gavin Newsom in the process — to confront a troubling trend of impersonation claims and a lawsuit. Starting in 2010, the Library of Congress worked with the company to archive every tweet, only to scale back to major events and figures due to sheer volume.

A 2020 Pew Research Center analysis found members of Congress dramatically scaled up their use of Twitter in the second half of the 2010s. The average number of tweets the typical member of Congress posted each month nearly doubled between 2016 to 2020.

Government officials have had to reckon with grass-roots political movements built on tweets. #BlackLivesMatter found a home on Twitter and so did #MeToo, which exploded into prominence in 2017. The platform also helped fuel far-right extremism, conspiracy theories like QAnon and harassment for political ends.

The view from Washington

— For the second time in a week, Biden’s campaign to highlight pandemic relief benefits has been overshadowed by a mass shooting, thrusting the issue of gun control to the fore, Eli Stokols writes. He called on Congress to act, but it’s not clear what Biden or Democrats can do, Sarah D. Wire reports.

— From Anita Chabria: Experts on extremism are warning about a troubling shift in the right-wing QAnon movement toward a new vein of conspiracy that blends anti-Chinese and anti-Jewish tropes with fears of vaccines and a global plot to take over the world.

— Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has built a reputation as a maverick conservative Democrat. But as Melanie Mason writes, she’s now part of the majority ruling party for the first time in her career, a test of her approach.

Alex Padilla is the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate, Wire writes. Can he help break Washington’s gridlock on immigration reform?

— Border crossings from Mexico are surging amid rumors that the Biden administration will be more lenient. Molly Hennessey-Fiske spoke to migrants and reports that an overwhelmed Border Patrol is releasing some without court paperwork, stirring confusion.

— Biden on Monday dispatched a high-level team to Mexico and Central America to start negotiating a “humane” solution to the growing crisis, Tracy Wilkinson reports.

The view from California

— The latest on the recall effort: A critical question is whether another Democrat jumps into the race to replace Newsom, and many political experts believe it is inevitable, Mehta writes.

— With Xavier Becerra confirmed as Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary, Newsom must choose a new California attorney general. Patrick McGreevy takes a look at the likely candidates.

— A Biden initiative that would pour money into repairing America’s decrepit infrastructure could net California a major windfall — if it gains traction, Ralph Vartabedian writes.

— Affluent suburbanites seem unlikely revolutionaries. But Orange County is seeing a resurgence in right-wing extremism at a time when major demographic shifts have turned the region from a deep-red bastion into a more racially and politically diverse community.

Stay in touch

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Prince Philip took a keen interest in Canada, but stayed above politics, former GGs and PM say

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When former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien met the late Prince Philip for the first time, he told him that for an Englishman, his French was very good.

“He said ‘I’m not English and I’ve spoken French since before you were born,’” Chrétien told the Star Friday, commenting on his many encounters over 50 years with the Duke of Edinburgh.

“He was not dull, let me put it that way,” Chrétien said. “He had some strong views. Sometimes he had to show discipline to not speak up more than he would have wished.”

Philip, born in Greece in 1921 and husband to Queen Elizabeth II for over 73 years, died at the age of 99 on Friday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said he first met Philip when he was a little boy, described him as “a man of great purpose and conviction, who was motivated by a sense of duty to others.”

Former prime ministers and governors general spoke of a man who understood his role and knew not to get involved in politics, but who was very knowledgeable about Canada and took a keen interest in the country’s success.

“I was always impressed by their knowledge,” Chrétien said of Philip and the Queen, Canada’s head of state.

He said he can recall Philip asking about the prospect of Quebec separating from the rest of the country. “Not in a very political fashion, just in terms of interest. Of course he was interested to not see Canada break up. He would certainly say that to me.”

 

Statements from former prime ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper highlighted Philip’s devotion to the Canadian armed forces and charitable organizations, as well as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, an international self-development program for young people.

Former governors general David Johnston and Michaëlle Jean, through their role as the Queen’s representative in Canada, were also able to get to know Philip more intimately, particularly at the Queen’s Balmoral Castle estate in Scotland.

Jean recalls being “overwhelmed” by all the protocol recommendations ahead of a Balmoral visit with her husband and six-year-old daughter prior to taking office in 2005, only to find Philip and the Queen greeting them at the door, with Philip paying special attention to her daughter.

“The memory I keep of Prince Philip is that of an affable, caring, elegant and warm man,” Jean told the Star, adding he was a man who was very attentive to detail.

She recalled attending a barbecue on the Balmoral estate, just the four of them, and Philip telling her, “Don’t forget to congratulate Her Majesty for her salad dressing, because she made it herself.”

What Jean also saw was a man sometimes hampered by the limitations of his role, like when he talked about one of his favourite topics, the environment.

“He said ‘I do a lot about it, I raise awareness, I take actions…I feel that whatever I do, no one cares,’” Jean recounted. “What I got from that is how lonely he felt…There was a sense of not feeling appreciated in proportion to his contributions, a feeling of being misunderstood.”

Johnston, who succeeded Jean, said Canada’s constitutional monarchy — where the head of state is politically neutral and separate from elected office — is an “important and precious” form of government, and Philip was key to making it work.

Philip showed leadership as a servant, Johnston said, “not taking centre stage, but by ensuring that the Queen and the monarchy were front row and centre.

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“He played such an important structural role, and did that with great diligence and commitment. He was selfless in that respect,” Johnston said in an interview.

For Matthew Rowe, who works on the Royal Family’s charitable endeavours in Canada, the Duke of Edinburgh’s political value to Canada was precisely that he was not political — that he, along with the rest of the monarchy, provided a stabilizing force outside of the partisan fray.

He was dynamic, irascible, exasperating, intriguing. And he was always three steps behind his wife, Queen Elizabeth, who utterly adored him throughout their 73-year marriage, flaws, faux pas and all.

“His presence, and the role of Her Majesty and other members of the Royal Family, has been to be able to represent the nation, to represent Canadian interests, and commemorate Canadian achievements without being tied to a particular political ideology or regional faction,” Rowe, who met Philip at a ceremony at Rideau Hall in 2010, said in an interview.

 

Philip’s role meant he could speak more frankly than the Queen in public, and spoke “quite thoughtfully” about the constitutional monarchy in Canada, said University of Toronto history instructor Carolyn Harris.

At a press conference in Ottawa in 1969, Philip famously said that the monarchy doesn’t exist “in the interests of the monarch…It exists solely in the interest of the people. We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.”

Philip had a good, joking relationship with Johnston’s wife, Sharon. He recounted how the two joined the Queen and Prince Philip at Balmoral in August 2010, prior to Johnston’s swearing-in later that year.

One evening, they were returning to the castle from a barbecue at a renovated shepherd’s hut on the estate — just the four of them, the Queen driving with Johnston in one land rover, and Philip driving with Sharon in the other ahead of them on narrow, highland roads.

“We were coming home at about 10 p.m., as black as could be, he and Sharon were ahead, kind of weaving, and we could hear these gales of laughter coming out. They were cracking jokes at one another,” Johnston said.

“I had a vision of him going over the edge and down half a mile into the valley, and my first thought is: Do the Queen and I rustle down to rescue them?”

Chrétien said “it must be terrible” for the Queen to now find herself alone after a marriage that lasted for more than 70 years. He noted it’s been almost seven months to the day since he lost his wife, Aline.

 

“It’s a big change in life but she’s an extremely courageous person and she will face the situation with the strength that she has been able to show to the world for the almost 70 years she’s been queen,” Chrétien said.

With files from Alex Boutilier and Kieran Leavitt

 

 

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After warning, McConnell softens posture on corporations’ taking political stances

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., softened his stance on corporations’ getting involved in politics Wednesday, a day after he warned companies not to weigh in on hot button issues.

“I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday. They’re certainly entitled to be involved in politics. They are,” McConnell told reporters. “My principal complaint is they didn’t read the darn bill.

“They got intimidated into adopting an interpretation … given by the Georgia Democrats in order to help get their way,” he said.

McConnell was referring to a controversial voting law recently passed in Georgia, which came about in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s campaign of falsehoods about the election result in the state last fall.

The law led the CEOs of Delta and Coca-Cola — which are based in Atlanta — to condemn the measure. And last week, Major League Baseball pulled this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest. The game will, instead, be played in Colorado.

In recent weeks, McConnell has excoriated corporate America for boycotting states over various GOP-led bills. He said Tuesday that it is “stupid” for corporations to take positions on divisive political issues but noted that his criticism did not extend to their donations.

“So my warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said in Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t be intimidated by the left into taking up causes that put you right in the middle of one of America’s greatest political debates.”

Major League Baseball’s decision drew the most outrage from Republicans, as Trump called for a boycott of baseball and other companies that spoke out against the Georgia law. McConnell said Tuesday that the latest moves are “irritating one hell of a lot of Republican fans.”

McConnell, long a champion of big money in politics, however, noted Tuesday that corporations “have a right to participate in a political process” but said they should do so without alienating “an awful lot of people.”

“I’m not talking about political contributions,” he said. “I’m talking about taking a position on a highly incendiary issue like this and punishing a community or a state because you don’t like a particular law that passed. I just think it’s stupid.”

Source:- NBC News

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Facebook Removes 1,000 Fake Accounts Seeking to Sway Global Politics

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(Bloomberg) — Facebook Inc. said it removed 14 networks representing more than 1,000 accounts seeking to sway politics around the world, including in Iran and El Salvador, while misleading the public about their identity.

Most of the removed networks were in the early stages of building their audiences, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Tuesday. Facebook’s announcement on Tuesday, part of its monthly reporting on efforts to rid its platforms of fake accounts, represents one of the larger crack downs by the company in recent months.

“We have been growing this program for several years,” said David Agranovich, Facebook’s global threat disruption lead. “I would expect to see this drum beat of take downs to continue.”

In one example, the company removed a network of more than 300 accounts, pages and groups on Facebook and the photo-sharing app Instagram that appear to be run by a years-old troll farm located in Albania and operated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq opposition group. The group appeared to target Iran, but also other audiences with content about Iran, according to a report released by Facebook.

The group was most active in 2017, but increased its activity again in the latter half of 2020. It was one of a handful of the influence campaigns that likely used machine learning technologies capable of creating realistic profile photos to the naked eye, Facebook said in the report.

The company also removed 118 accounts, eight pages and 10 Instagram accounts based in Spain and El Salvador for violating the company’s foreign interference policy. The group amplified criticism of Henry Flores, a mayoral candidate in Santa Tecla, El Savador and supportive commentary of his rivals, the company said.

The social media giant also took down a network of 29 Facebook accounts, two pages, one group and 10 Instagram accounts based in Iran that was targeting Israel. The people behind the network posed as locals and posted criticism about Isreali prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Facebook. The company also took down networks based in Argentina, Mexico, Egypt and other nations.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said the company has improved its ability to identify inauthentic accounts, but said bad actors continue to change their strategies to avoid Facebook’s detection.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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