Internet brain poison didn’t deliver a ‘red wave’

Outrage clickbait can get a political hopeful further than it should, but it didn’t finish the job when it mattered

Internet brain poison didn’t deliver a ‘red wave’
Image: “En L'An 2000” by Jean-Marc Côté via Wikimedia France

Edited by Sam Thielman

DEMOCRATS FARED MUCH BETTER in the midterm elections than many (including myself) expected them to. The forecasted “red wave” turned out to be a virgin cranberry splash, in which some of the most dangerous candidates were rejected by voters. States where Republicans are firmly entrenched—including Florida, where Ron DeSantis had people publicly arrested for misunderstanding the state’s felon re-enfranchisement law—ushered in alarming candidates along the party line. But in swing states that often determine the balance of federal power, candidates backed by Donald Trump and his obedient Republican Party blew it.

Republican-aligned media and think tanks have been issuing mea culpas since last Tuesday, publicly equivocating about their loyalty to Trump and questioning his status as Republican kingmaker. (We’ll see how long that lasts after Trump declares his 2024 candidacy; he’s suggested he may do it as soon as tomorrow.) What I haven’t seen those folks do is consider whether the Grand Old Party has over-invested in esoteric “culture war” rhetoric. In swing states that Republicans most needed to break in their favor, the Party ran candidates on what I’ll call the “Libs of TikTok platform” of resentment-driven clickbait; their candidates spent the last days attacking opponents for not hating transgender kids, for example.

That sort of rhetoric can get a political hopeful a lot farther in modern politics than it should. But when the margins get tight, it seems that the normal, non-political people you want to engage to win a swing state just aren’t that into it.

To understand why the GOP would make this gamble in swing states, let’s rewind the clock. After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Republicans saw the “meme magic” that helped carry Trump into the White House and made the apparent calculation that their future was dependent on investing in the kind of content their base voters gobble up online: bigoted rage bait. Now, the culture wars almost entirely define the Party’s current approach to media and political messaging.

To be fair, us-vs-them conspiracism has worked out for quite a few people, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. She created a social media persona that appealed to Qanon conspiracy theorists, and rode it to wins in a deep-red Georgia district, leading to greater influence in the broader GOP. Activist organizations like Turning Point USA rose to power by turning grandparents’ money into memes that young people ostensibly enjoy (they don’t), and by building a network of influencers who can collectively spread those memes and earn a lot of impressions. Many of them have left the organization in disgrace, but they still thrive in the right-wing grift-o-sphere: When Kanye West began spouting antisemitism, Turning Point’s former communications director Candace Owens materialized next to him.

Social anxiety about minority groups can be wielded against its targets, or used to direct crowds of already angry people, or even mobilize believers to do things like yell at school boards about sex-ed and history curricula. Fanning these flames has also accelerated the intensity of the Party’s online following: In a field where everyone is talking in hyperbole, influencers will crank up the intensity of their own rhetoric to stand out. Pretty reliably, they wind up at extreme positions—often familiar ones. And it serves its traditional function, too: It lets candidates avoid talking about their own, often-unpopular policy positions.

But social media engagement is about fandoms, not outreach and mobilization. (“The election was rigged!” is especially bad for mobilization, for obvious reasons.) If political campaigns really wanted to get the social media numbers going, they’d ditch culture war crap and learn from the pros: accounts with names like “depressedteen463” that post things like “i shouldve never let u go.” These accounts get more interaction on their posts than political content ever will. Politicians could also look to accounts that worship pop stars; they crush it on engagement!

Of course at some point campaigns might begin asking themselves whether posting vaguely depressed one-liners or mashup videos of Taylor Swift is a truly effective political strategy. By that same measure, modeling entire campaigns on viral partisan content is a mistake where broader appeal is needed. Treating social media metrics as if they’re reflections of public sentiment is poison for any serious operation. The world remains a complicated place with endless nuance, despite social media’s potential to flatten one’s perception.

Bernie, hire me. I can help you.

I didn’t feel there was much risk of repeating the 2020 election cycle in its entirety this year, even if I still had my own worries. For one, the Capitol riot occurred during a perfect storm of rage in the Republican base that has since passed: anger over COVID-19 policies, fear of racial justice protests, and loyalty to an outgoing wannabe fascist leader—all firing simultaneously. There’s also a logistical problem: The potential leaders of any further election-denier chaos are still very worried after the blowback from January 6th. Most of them are either afraid that federal agents will entrap them if they get too rowdy, or already serving jail time or prison sentences after the last coup didn’t quite work out. Worse, large audiences are tired of endlessly litigating 2020; they’ve heard this song before and are switching the station to a different shitty radio single—maybe one about harassing transgender people who want to enjoy sports.

The 2022 election cycle has so far lacked the horrific climax some pundits feared was all but inevitable. Only a few losing or underperforming candidates have tried to contest election results, and people haven’t rallied to their cries of outrage the way they did to Trump’s in 2020. Attempts to organize protests have been ineffective, and law enforcement seems better prepared to respond to them when they do materialize. There are still many serious threats to the integrity of US democracy, and Trump’s candidacy declaration could change things dramatically, but another Capitol riot is probably not in the cards this round.

These midterms produced a lot of mixed feelings for me, and many of them are negative. It feels as if the worst outcomes were dodged for the time being, but I still have the taste of metal in my mouth and I can’t pinpoint why that is. If I figure it out, you'll probably read all about it in one of these newsletters.

A passing thought on Elon Musk’s need to wake up

I remain unconvinced that Twitter is headed for the boneyard just yet, but admittedly a lot of my thought process is based on the idea that surely Elon Musk will recognize the mistakes he’s making. Any minute now, I think to myself, he will have a moment of clarity and slow down. People like Musk only understand the world in terms of power, and if he screws this up too bad he will lose a bit of what he has.

I feel a least partially validated when I watch Musk quickly reverse bad policy ideas he had for the platform; less so when I hear the drumbeat of headlines about the purge of staff, waves of fake “verified” accounts, and advertiser exoduses. What has made me most pessimistic are the accounts of people still inside the company who are losing faith. It seems possible that Musk might rid the company of all the people who could or would help him correct his course. Then what?

At the speed Musk is going, it feels like his window of opportunity for grasping the reality of owning a social media platform is narrowing. I’ve enjoyed using the “hell site” over the years and owe some degree of the reputation I have in my field to the voice I’ve established on Twitter. I suppose all things must pass and it feels as if the current generation of social media—Twitter included—is on its way out.

The end of Twitter will probably look less like an explosion and more like a fade to black before the credits roll. I suspect that it won’t collapse; it will just gradually become irrelevant. Employees who weren’t fired already will be looking for a way out of the company, taking their institutional knowledge with them. Musk will probably make more abrupt and half-baked changes to the platform, creating an unstable environment that still more advertisers will avoid. He’ll struggle for money and deploy increasingly desperate attempts to monetize the platform at the cost of user privacy and experience. People will leave gradually and accounts will sit abandoned. Something else will fill the void and we’ll look back on it the same way we do our MySpace profiles.

There will be something else that replaces that cultural spot Twitter currently holds, should it open. There always is. Platforms come and go, but the internet is forever.