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Twitter’s Fractured Debate Culture Is Performative, Not Productive


Each day, each hour, each minute, America’s political pundits go head-to-head on Twitter. They quote-tweet and like and retweet and comment. They flex their muscles and perform.

It is often advantageous that punching back hard at the opposition is so embedded in American culture. Through the engine of Twitter, this persists. If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., says something harebrained about the minimum wage or health care or abortion, one of our conservative media or political allies can provide the other side of the equation.

Here’s the unfortunate thing: putting aside the reality that corporations have colluded to censor those unsubscribing to leftist orthodoxy. For all the grandeur and endless content on Twitter, political debates are less substantive than they are performative. They are inherently fragmented and one-sided.

Followers Must Be Fed Their Daily Dosage

Twitter is a sprawling empire of ideological thought. It used to be even more so prior to becoming so hopelessly totalitarian. But the basis from which it operates, on reactions and applause, indubitably puts a massive dent in our ability to reach the other side of the political aisle.

Users are rewarded not for their participation in a sound debate but for their “dunk,” which often only appears to those who favor the espoused ideals. The whole aim is to have your followers massage you as much as possible, and the way to do this is to artificially win debates — quote-tweeting in threads that are not actual debates in the first place.

Case and point: When Robinhood stopped traders from being able to buy Gamestop and AMC stock, AOC decided to join the conversation. She quote-tweeted a post from a Vice-affiliate technology account and said she would “support a hearing if necessary.”

In response to this admonishment of Robinhood, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas decided to do something quite uncommon for him. He publicly agreed with something the congresswoman had said.

“Fully agree,” Cruz said.

Given that Cruz detests nearly all that Ocasio-Cortez stands for, he likely recognized that through this easy agreement, he might be rewarded digital chips by both sides. But what followed was the crux of just how performative Twitter can be.

Instead of letting herself agree with Cruz on what should be a bipartisan meeting ground, Ocasio-Cortez found an opportunity to accrue internet dollars. She opened up the curtains of the Twitter theater and capitalized. It was politically tactical.

“I am happy to work with Republicans on this issue where there’s common ground, but you almost had me murdered 3 weeks ago so you can sit this one out. Happy to work w/ almost any other GOP that aren’t trying to get me killed. In the meantime if you want to help, you can resign,” AOC said in a quote-tweet.

AOC’s tweet boomed, and as of writing has nearly 790,000 likes, 172,000 retweets, and a little over 50,000 comments. By finding an outlet to dunk on Cruz in a way that would most certainly land with her left-wing followers, she declared victory: to herself, to her ego, to those who robotically support it.

The following week, continuing to cash in on her hyperbole, AOC recorded an hour-and-a-half-long Instagram live on the Capitol breach, in which she said she “thought I was going to die,” and, “I have never been quieter in my entire life.” This encore to her Twitter performance was a drama worthy of an Emmy, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s, complete with tears and touches of the heart.

Ocasio-Cortez’s video was the natural progression from her superficial spat with Cruz, but her internet glory didn’t last long. After the congresswoman capitalized on her “near-death experience,” news broke that she was not even in the Capitol building during the breach. In fact, AOC was in the Cannon House Office Building. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., was in the same hallway as Ocasio-Cortez and said the rioters never even made it there. AOC’s supposed terror was merely from a Capitol Police officer who briefly evacuated members of Congress to the nearby Longworth House Office Building.

In trying to elevate herself and dance over Cruz’s image for self-gain, the congresswoman disparaged a police officer and looked quite foolish — but at least she performed well.

A Battle for Clout

In the physical world, in an ideal scenario, there is an understanding during dialogue and debate that a social transaction is occurring, mutual performativity that involves hand motions and facial features. When you make eye contact, emotions mingle with words, and words may or may not shift the conversation in another direction. Conversational spontaneity gives way for potential inroads among politically opposed people.

Twitter debates, however, are largely not about changing minds. They are about appeasing political allies and gaining personal traction, about letting allies know you have a leg in the fight. The followers, in turn, provide an instant flow of gratification through likes, comments, and retweets of their own, providing digital warmth.

This warmth is not real though. It is an equation. Unlike in-person conversations, where defending your ideas does require courage, Twitter fights require no moral fortitude, and success is measured by the traction of posts, not by the substance of ideas.

In the case of AOC, even though other influential Republicans attempted to dunk on her in the comments section, she did not care because she never sent those tweets to participate in a transaction. She sent them to flex her muscles. The pseudo-transaction had been muddled in favor of a one-sided dialogue, as it inevitably does on Twitter.

The Argument for Clubhouse

Whereas Twitter is a one-sided vacuum for people to pat themselves on the back, the app Clubhouse is revolutionary. It allows users to engage strictly by voice, in rooms with moderators. No one can record, and if you try to do so, people will be notified, or you may be banned. Fact-checkers at Poynter were not too happy to learn this.

Clubhouse is less an outlet for fruitless performative speech and more so a legitimate means for people to hear one another and respond. Already, there have been several examples.

Whereas Dispatch senior editor David French is able to skate by on Twitter, quote-tweeting every conservative with the most controversial response he can think of to appease his audience, he has been willfully confronted in Clubhouse. French joined a room called “David French: Based or Cringe” last week and had to answer to real people.

And while conservatives debated hotly over the American Moment versus “Conservatism Inc.” situation on Twitter again, largely just playing their role and appeasing their respective ideological followers, Clubhouse provided an outlet for discourse. Last week, one room moderated by The American Mind founding editor Matthew J. Peterson was filled with those in his political corner, as well as Michael Brendan Dougherty from National Review. The debates were substantive, less performative.

Twitter Is About Social Credit, Not Honest Debate

While one obtains followers on Clubhouse, it is significantly less relevant to the user experience. These followers cannot like, comment, or share posts. They can only join rooms and speak if they are invited.

Twitter, on the other hand, is a digital jungle gym, where we all seek to one-up each other and flaunt our competence or commitment to our cause. It is all an experiment where we try to improve upon our self-images, carefully, surreptitiously, behind a glass screen made in China that lights up and provides endorphins each time a like, comment, or retweet floats in. But make no mistake: Twitter debates are all for thrills, not for solving America’s afflictions deeply embedded within.