OPINION: Twitter has warped politics


Anthony Johnson

Candidates need to do more than just trying to gain followers on Twitter. Graphic by Hailey Stessman/The Gateway

Former Vice President Joe Biden has less than half as many Twitter followers as Sen. Bernie Sanders, but he currently has over 150 more delegates in this year’s Democratic primary.

Other than his association with a popular former president, Biden doesn’t have much going for him on paper. He’s prone to rhetorical gaffes. He’s had a long career in politics that is vulnerable to criticism. He’ll turn 78 by the time of inauguration. And, unlike his primary opponent, he doesn’t seem to have a particularly devout fan base.

Sanders, on the other hand, looks like he has a lot going for him. Despite his loss, he was very popular in the 2016 primary and influenced the party as a whole. He’s mostly been ideologically consistent for his whole career. Although he’s even older than Biden, he speaks to younger voters far more effectively. And his supporters, especially on Twitter, are loud and numerous.

As someone who’s actively online, I couldn’t believe how wrong I was about this election. I thought Sanders would run away with the nomination. I see a lot of Twitter users with #Bernie2020 in their bio, and very few with #Biden2020. But that didn’t end up meaning that much.

So why did I, and others, put so much weight into what Twitter had to say?

Compare it to the 1960 presidential election. Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon were the first candidates to ever debate each other on television. Those who only listened to the debate over the radio mostly found it to be even or thought Nixon had won. But those who watched it on TV were more impressed by the younger, healthier and better-looking Kennedy, who went on to win the election.

Sanders ran a great campaign on Twitter. He’s been much more involved—his official Twitter account has even tweeted over 17,000 times. Biden has tweeted just over 4,000 times. Bernie’s slogan, “Not Me. Us,” translates into a hashtag seamlessly. I’m not even sure what Biden’s slogan is. He speaks in soundbytes while Biden speaks with a stutter. Medicare-for-all and free college are a lot catchier than a public option or debt-free community college.

It’d be easy to make the comparison that Twitter is the new TV. But 2020 didn’t quite turn out to be like 1960. The media and the other candidates jumped the gun on valuing Twitter’s input over conventional wisdom.

Twitter tells you that socialism is very popular, and conventional wisdom tells you that it’s a naughty word in American politics. Twitter tells you that it’s perfectly rational to defend Fidel Castro’s literacy program, and conventional wisdom tells you that Cuban-Americans in an important swing state might not respond well to that.

Sanders has the support of the social-media savvy Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (who also has more Twitter followers than Biden), but Biden has the support of just about everybody else. Most of the “also-ran” candidates from this primary have gone on to endorse him. Even the outsider, Andrew Yang, chose him over Sanders.

Other candidates tried to force viral moments, e.g. “I am Spartacus” and “I was that little girl,” to win Twitter. But Biden followed the conventional wisdom: moderates win elections and Democrats prefer President Obama over Castro.

Politicians who want progressive change need to run for the White House, not the trending page.