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Twitter, Elon and the Indigo Blob
The line between expertise and politics has become increasingly blurry. The demise of "Old Twitter" could help to reverse that.
This post was cooked on a griddle that has the grease stains of 1,000 arguments on and about the Internet. I’ve aimed to keep it to a reasonable length, and a lot of the arguments could be developed further. However, they are not casually tossed-off ideas. They reflect many years of thinking about American politics and many years of experience I’ve had working in the mainstream media (for The New York Times, ESPN and ABC News). Let’s begin with my core hypothesis:
In American media and political discourse, there has been a fundamental asymmetry during the Trump Era. Left-progressives, liberals, centrists, and moderate or non-MAGA conservatives all share a common argumentative space. I call this space the Indigo Blob, because it’s somewhere between left-wing (blue) and centrist (purple). The space largely excludes MAGA/right-wing conservatives — around 30 percent of the country.
I’ll sometimes see progressives lament that there is no left-wing equivalent to Fox News. Mostly, I agree that there’s an asymmetry. For example, if you average out all of the content on their respective platforms, The New York Times maintains a much higher level of journalistic quality than Fox News does, and is much less partisan.
However, that’s largely because partisan, progressive, pro-left wing, pro-Democratic Party media is embedded within the mainstream media.
Let me be very specific here. This does not mean that all or necessarily most mainstream media content has a progressive bias. It varies a lot based on the subject area, and the specific news outlet, writers and editors involved.
If you want to reduce it to a statistical representation — and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, although I’ll show you some real data from a real academic paper in a moment — the situation looks something like this:
In this formulation, -10 reflects maximal left-wing bias and +10 reflects maximal right-wing bias. On average, right-wing media is much more biased (+9) than the mainstream media (-3). In fact, the average mainstream media story has only a slight hint of left-wing bias, and many mainstream media stories have no bias at all or even have a modest right-wing bias. However, the mainstream media is also much larger than the right-wing media, which aims only for the MAGAiest 25 or 30 percent of the country. That’s the asymmetry. The US has a large mainstream media that on average has a modest left-wing bias — but with some stories that are very biased and others that aren’t biased at all — and a smaller (though still formidable) right-wing media which is flagrantly biased.
The Indigo Blob also encompasses many ostensibly nonpartisan institutions such as the media, science, government, academia and even many types of businesses. It can be hard to distinguish partisan people and institutions from those that seek to maintain pluralism or nonpartisanship.
If you add up the numbers in the graphic above, you’ll find that they sum to zero. That is, the modest left-wing bias of the mainstream media roughly cancels out the flagrant bias of the (smaller) right-wing media, and vice versa. The equation balances. But which side gets the better half of the deal?
I don’t think it’s close. I think the left does.
That’s because the Indigo Blob is large enough to be the default. It represents about 70 percent of the country. This is potentially changing as the right wing becomes more aggressive in attacking these institutions, but until the past year or so, it was therefore much safer for supposedly agnostic or nonpartisan institutions such as corporations to express left-leaning viewpoints than right-leaning ones.
What’s more, because the employees of these institutions tend disproportionally to be college-educated — and because educational status is a strong correlate of the Blob/MAGA divide — these institutions are often more left-leaning than the constituents or consumers that they’re designed to serve.
Twitter is not the sole reason for the existence of the Indigo Blob. Other major reasons include educational polarization and the takeover of the Republican Party by Trump. However, pre-Elon Twitter served as the town square of the Indigo Blob, where its values were debated and determined. It strongly reinforced the existence of the Blob and the asymmetrical arrangement of American political media.
Within the comfort of the Indigo Blob, it’s easy to forget about the other 30 percent of the country. That was particularly true on Twitter, at least until Elon Musk took over the platform.
This graphic from a paper by Magdelena Wojcieszak, et. al. reflects the ideological position of different groups of Twitter users from 2016-2019. There’s a lot going on, so let me show you the figure first and then we can talk our way through it.
Among politicians on Twitter, we see a traditional bimodal distribution with liberal and conservative peaks corresponding to the Democratic and Republican parties. But everything else is left-skewed. There’s not a clear distinction between left-wing and centrist news organizations — they’re all part of the Indigo Blob — and the right-wing media isn’t terribly well-represented. The same holds for journalists, although the right flank is even more attenuated. And Twitter’s users during this period skewed heavily left too, with liberals outnumbering conservatives roughly 3:1, according to Wojcieszak. Anyone who was active on the platform during this period knew that content satisfying to progressives and Democrats was more likely to be rewarded with likes and retweets.
I believe this contributed to the misestimation of the political preferences of the American public by journalists, Twitter-savvy politicians and others who were active on the platform. Pre-Elon Twitter contained a comprehensive enough set of viewpoints that you could feel like everyone was there, but in fact it differed from the overall U.S. electorate in many important ways. For instance, a New York Times/Upshot study in 2019 found that Democrats on Twitter were far more progressive, far more white and far more likely to be college-educated than those in the Democratic electorate overall. That’s why Elizabeth Warren won the Twitter primary — while Joe Biden became the actual Democratic nominee.
And of course, all of this was before Trump was banned from Twitter January 2021. Notwithstanding the inherent futility of trying to “deplatform” the current president, who had many other ways to communicate with his base, I get that this was a tough decision for Twitter after Trump had used the platform to help trigger the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But considering that Twitter was already left-skewed, and that Trump was by far the most prominent exception, this further entrenched Twitter as a space for the Blob to talk amongst itself, without all the deplorables to get in the way. That’s why, to a certain type of progressive figure, it literally felt like Musk was “opening the gates of hell” when he unbanned Trump and other conservative accounts.
The subtext of many arguments within the Indigo Blob is whether the ostensibly nonpartisan institutions I mentioned — the media, science, government, academia and business — ought to reflect progressive values.
The writer Damian Linker defined “wokeism” as follows:
The effort by progressives to take ideological control of institutions within civil society and use those positions to mandate that their moral outlook be adopted throughout the broader culture.
I don’t think this is a particularly good definition of “wokeism” or wokeness, just because I don’t think that’s quite what people are referring to when they use those terms. But I do think it gets at something vital. This is sometimes why relatively picayune arguments, like who is allowed publish an op-ed in The New York Times, blow up on Twitter. They are proxies for larger discussions about whether these institutions ought to be openly progressive. For instance, some public health types sought to use COVID policy to advance left/progressive political aims — and argued that the politicization of public health was a good thing. Within journalism, accusations of “both sidesism” have become at least as common as accusations of liberal bias.
As will not surprise you, I am strongly on the nonpartisan side on this question, although maybe a better way to put it is that I favor pluralistic institutions over a progressive monoculture. I think institutions like the media — and certainly science and medicine — provide substantial, non-zero-sum benefits to society and that this mission has been somewhat compromised in recent years by left-leaning partisanship. I would argue that many of the worst failures of COVID policy — for instance, extended school closures — partly reflected the politicization of these institutions.
I also recognize that this is complicated. Centrists can be partisan too, certainly. And it’s hard for institutions of any kind to be truly value-neutral; the term “nonpartisan” comes with a whole bunch of embedded assumptions of its own. However, as a heuristic, I think these institutions ought to reflect the preferences of their constituents. For example, if public health officials would strongly prioritize “equity” when coming up with a plan to distribute vaccines but the general public would not, they should defer to the public.
The Indigo Blob is not an undifferentiated mass. If you look closely, it contains multitudes. However, it’s to some people’s advantage to maintain the Blob’s ambiguity. Trying to disambiguate the Blob will often make you the subject of intense criticism on Twitter, and Twitter’s architecture has tended to make such dissent painful.
The basic critique here is that some people within the Indigo Blob have laundered the trust placed within their institutions as sources of expertise to advance a political agenda or for other self-serving purposes. For instance, by publishing misinformation that downplayed the possibility of a COVID lab leak in Nature Medicine to avoid causing trouble with China, giving credence to Trump, or drawing criticism of virological research. Or on a more routine level, by playing motte-and-bailey games between science and advocacy.
Many other people in the Indigo Blob don’t agree with this attitude and don’t partake in these behaviors. However, here is where Twitter plays a role. If you’re one of those annoying people like me who thinks there’s value in pointing out hypocrisy and other misbehavior from people in the Blob, you will get absolutely shat upon on Twitter. People feel extremely threatened when you point this stuff out. They will go great lengths to deter it. They will launch all types of ad hominem attacks against you. They will just flatly make stuff up about you. This is particularly likely if you are member in good standing of the Indigo Blob yourself, and have some credibility to critique them. Your credentials will be attacked, or you will be called a “closet right-winger”; anything to disqualify you.
And Twitter’s architecture makes this worse, particularly the quote retweet and the Trending Topics module. It is a medium where dissent from the consensus is treated punitively.
However, for me at least, some of these issues have been getting better under Elon. Trending Topics seems to be more personalized than it once was — I’ll often see Trending Topics about poker, for instance, which I doubt are of much interest to the average Twitter user. That makes it harder for any one person to be the main character of the day.
And opening the “gates of hell” has at least made the platform more pluralistic, even if it has also brought a whole lot of other nonsense. There are still warring factions, but there isn’t necessarily any one dominant faction in the way there was before.
Casey Newton hypothesizes that Musk bought Twitter essentially in order to destroy it. And guess what: maybe Musk wasn’t wrong. The Old Twitter kind of sucked, especially if you ever had the experience of dissenting from the consensus. It reinforced the worst impulses of the Indigo Blob, making it more partisan and rendering its institutions less effective.
There were also a lot of great features of Twitter. It was terrific for professional networking, for real-time coverage of some types of events, for cultivating interests in niche subjects, and even for encouraging pithy writing (my brain will forever be programmed to think in 280-character segments). Unfortunately, we probably aren’t getting the New Twitter — er, the new X — that I would want; Musk’s performance has been haphazard and he has a lot of hang-ups that I don’t share. But to the Old Twitter, good riddance.
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The general preference of this newsletter — not a super strict one, I’ll make exceptions from time to time — is to use “liberal” in the way that Europeans use the term, i.e. as something distinct from “left” or “progressive”. I know this is a bit pedantic but I think it’s important — I’ll explain why in a future post.
This is roughly the share of the country that believes the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, a belief that distinguishes MAGA conservatives from those who vote for him because of the ‘R’ by his name or becauue they view him as the lesser of two evils.
MSNBC is perhaps a better comparison, though I’d argue that it’s still not as partisan as Fox News, and also that it’s much less important to the left-wing ecosystem than Fox News is to the right-wing one. I don’t watch a lot of cable news these days, though, so this is a weakly-held view.