What if Twitter isn't real?

By that, I don't just mean Russian bots talking to other Russian bots, liberal satirists fooling gullible conservatives, and cynical opinion-mongers conjuring panics out of nothing. There's clearly a lot of literally fake news on Twitter, and it's a problem.

Notwithstanding these flaws — or perhaps because of them — Twitter is still taken seriously as a medium. It's supposed to be extraordinarily powerful and influential, able to make and break reputations at unprecedented speed.

But what if it isn't? What if Twitter is mostly a closed ecosystem, relevant only to and within itself? What if its ability to shape the real world is, as they say, greatly exaggerated?

Consider the most potent Twitter user in the world: President Donald Trump. Trump's tweets are scrutinized by hordes of journalists, both for a view into the president's mood and views, and because they can easily be repackaged into a story that attracts additional attention (including attention on Twitter). But announcements Trump makes via Twitter are as often as not contradicted by his own staff or by the president himself in a subsequent tweet (as was the case — repeatedly — with regard to the purported truce in our trade war with China). There's precious little evidence that they are a reliable guide to anything — certainly not more reliable than either old-fashioned gumshoe reporting and source greasing.

Why, then do they move markets? Well, how do we know they do? News stories written about market moves, even when they quote participants, are exercises in after-the-fact explanation of the inherently unpredictable behavior of a chaotic system. Since they have very little predictive value, they don't have much practical utility. In a very basic sense, all we can say about the idea of a Trump tweet moving the markets is that a sufficient number of market participants thought that a sufficient number of other market participants would be surprised and react a certain way. It's mob psychology all the way down. Following Trump's tweets will tell you almost nothing useful about how resources will actually be allocated, and that is ultimately what matters.

Do they at least have a political consequence? That's not completely clear either. While Trump clearly uses Twitter to communicate to his base and to keep them in a state of agitated support, it's not clear how much that activity affects electoral outcomes. Consider Trump's involvement in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. Trump strongly supported establishment candidate Luther Strange, only to see him lose to the Trumpier candidate, Roy Moore. Trump's response was to delete his prior tweets supporting Strange, and embrace Moore — only to see Moore lose.

My point is not that Trump has no political influence. He is, after all, the president, and he can make decisions of great consequence. But his tweets are not such decisions. They are utterly ephemeral, not just in practical terms but even in political ones. They may affect the emotions of millions, but only for an instant. And he, like every political leader, operates within real-world constraints which include the deeper views and feelings of his own most fervent supporters — and their opponents. His mastery of Twitter doesn't eliminate those constraints; at best, it enables him to measure them more effectively.

How easy is it to even do that, though? That's a question every organization concerned with public relations, which is to say just about every organization, cares deeply about. When Twitter "blows up" in response to something controversial associated with the organization, does that demand a forthright response to prevent serious harm to the organization's reputation? And how can you predict in advance what will spark such a storm?

It's extremely hard to know — because Twitter, like the financial markets, is also a chaotic system, and hence inherently unpredictable. In the face of that uncertainty, the default for many organizations is to react defensively, but it's not clear that defensiveness is effective, in either the short or long term.

Consider the case of comedian Kevin Hart, who was briefly tapped to host the Academy Awards. As soon as the announcement was made, the denizens of Twitter went to work unearthing bits from his comedy (of which his Twitter feed is surely an extension) that were less than complimentary toward gay men, to say the least. Within two days, Hart had stepped aside, claiming he didn't want to be a distraction from the awards ceremony. But the distraction hasn't abated. Instead, Hart's friends and colleagues are coming to his defense by pointing out that other ostensibly woke comedians engaged in similar sorts of humor and continue to do so.

Did the Academy do the right thing? If the "right thing" is to never give a platform to anyone who's ever said anything like Hart said, then the mistake was to ever have reached out to Hart in the first place. Backing down swiftly just makes it look like they didn't do their homework, and further erodes trust in their judgment; it's not like those homophobic jokes were any kind of secret, after all.

From the Academy's perspective, though, the "right thing" was probably just to avoid negative publicity that would weaken ratings for the event. But by that metric it's quite possible that they made the wrong call. I suspect there are more Kevin Hart fans who normally don't watch the awards who would tune in to see him than there are die-hard Oscar watchers who would tune out in protest of his presence. Moreover, it's easy to imagine folks in the Academy's PR department pulling their hair out now about the problem of how to replace Hart. If the next host isn't black, will Hart fans accuse the Academy of holding him to a racist double standard? But how will another black comedian feel about stepping into the spot over Hart's corpse?

So I have to wonder: What would have happened if the Academy had done nothing — or nearly nothing? What if they followed a PR strategy that presumed that, in the Twitter era, the baseline level of negative publicity is always going to be higher than it used to be — and that the presumption should be that the publicity has few real consequences in monetary terms. Firing off an angry tweet is the second-easiest thing in the world to do, the only thing easier being liking someone else's angry tweet. If that's all that's happening, then what's happening really isn't real.

That's basically how The New York Times handled the most recent blast of Twitter fury aimed their way, over their conservative columnist, Ross Douthat. Apropos of the passing of President George H. W. Bush, Douthat wrote a column lamenting the passing of the old WASP aristocracy and its replacement by a self-described meritocratic elite that, while more diverse in terms of ethnicity, race and gender, lacks many of the civic virtues that legitimated the old establishment.

His argument could be attacked legitimately from many directions; The Week's own Ryan Cooper did an able job of one such, making the case for FDR's class treason over the noblesse oblige of the establishment's typical class-consciousness. But when Douthat's column "blew up" on Twitter, we didn't see a vibrant debate about Douthat's thesis; we saw a virtual mob denouncing Douthat as a white supremacist, and excoriating The New York Times for publishing such racist hate.

The Times, of course, has not fired Douthat for WASP nostalgia. Nor are they likely to fire him for saying, in his follow-up column, that his political ideal is a "multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy ruling from Quebec to Chile." In one sense, that suggests that they are comfortable with those views as part of the spectrum of opinion their readers deserve to hear, and with Douthat as the kind of writer who can expound those opinions in a mode that is appropriately respectful of deep political disagreement. (I agree on both counts.)

In another sense, though, what it suggests is that the Times is confident that a wave of Twitter outrage is not actually a threat to their bottom line. Their readers may write nasty comments, but they aren't actually going to leave. In fact, they don't even actually want Douthat to leave, because the opportunity to vent their outrage is part of the experience they came for, whether they actually read his piece or just heard about it on Twitter.

How many other respectable institutions and individuals are in the same position? How many are stronger than they think and could weather the outrage cycle simply by saying: Twitter outrage isn't real outrage; Twitter shame isn't real shame. This medium only has power if we choose to believe it does. But we know who and what we are, and we're going to keep being who and what we are, and will trust our own good judgment to prevail not only in the fullness of time, but in time to keep us solvent.

I suspect we're going to find out. Because no institution can remain respectable if it doesn't respect itself. And how much self-respect can anyone have living in constant terror of a fickle and shallow digital mob?