Contrary to popular opinion, Twitter doesn’t lend itself to rants. In fact, one of its early charms was its necessitated brevity, which meant that even if you were itching to soapbox about your fantasy draft or, say, Vanity Fair, you had to squeeze it into 140 characters. But nature abhors a vacuum and there’s been a post-election explosion of Twitter users threading their tweets into de facto blog posts as a way of getting the word out about Trump transition takes that just don’t fit into 150 characters.
Earlier this week, self-described futurist and “competitive analyst” Eric Garland used Twitter to create one such long ass diatribe. In a furious, 127-tweet, nearly three thousand word tweetstorm, Garland crafted a little “game theory” to connect 9/11, President George W. Bush, Edward Snowden and President Bill Clinton to the current accusations of the Kremlin influencing this year’s election.
In the end, Garland’s conclusion — that Russia has the opportunity, motive and means to swing the election for Trump — is broadly defensible. But his actual argument read like one of the Joker’s hostage letters, if the Joker published all his hostage letters on Xanga after writing them on a Dell with a malfunctioning CAPSLOCK. Here’s a brief excerpt:
THEN, OMG, that worked so well that the pièce de résistance was next: SNOWDEN!!! BOOYAH! THE BIG GAME! NSA! PRISM! SPASM! (incidentally, the NSA was about the only agency the Russians took seriously) But then this EARNEST young man. He tells THE TROOTH! DID YOU KNOW YOUR TOASTER IS SPYING ON YOU? THE GUBMINT! IT IS EVERYWHERE! THEY SPY ON (*controls snickering*) ALLIES! ALL BAD! And still hungover from the rotten venality of the Iraq War and Bush’s perversion of the IC as reliable, Wikileaks journalisms the NSA! DON’T YOU CALL IT SOMETHING ELSE. HARD DRIVES FROM THE NSA IZ JOURNALISM! Even when you take the files to Brazil! Honest! Ask Glenn! And then, automagically, our man Ed ends up…what’s this now? In Russia? Well, they are such welcoming folks! How…nice! Langley and Fort Meade run out of bourbon in about three hours, and every intel guy in Russia is drunk, dancing on the desks, and LAFFING. AND THE LEFT! HOLY F**KING ADORABLE BATMAN! Honi soit qui mal y pense! How dare you suggest untoward Russian involvement! Journamalisms!!!!
And so on. Strike the bizarre caps lock and embarrassing attempts at patronizing humor, and you’re still left with a highly speculative fanfic that substitutes conviction for evidence. This is not, on the face of it, so different from the crazed rantings you can find anywhere on the internet, albeit this style tends to be more regularly associated with Area 51 than election postmortems. What sets this apart was the endorsements it received by people who should know better. The thread was re-posted in glowing terms by ostensibly smart people like Dan Savage, the folks at Boing Boing and Daily Kos. Clara Jeffery, editor in chief of Mother Jones, called it the “single greatest thread I have ever read on Twitter. And in its way a Federalist Paper for 2016.” Tim Fullerton, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s director of communications, proclaimed “if there were a Pulitzer for tweeting—this thread would be the undisputed winner of 2016.”
Here’s the Washington Post’s Dave Fahrenthold:
It has been an admittedly tough few weeks for America’s liberal intelligentsia, but if Garland’s tweetstorm is “great writing,” I’m a bad hombre. There’s no need to dismantle Garland’s tweetstorm here, as Slate’s Sam Kriss already wrote the definitive takedown.
Over the past eight years, there have been some whoppers spun about President Barack Obama. The truly crazy ones — he’s a secret radical Muslim, he founded ISIS, he’s coming for your guns, he was born in Kenya — were easily disproven, although continuing to believe them was evidently not seen as a disqualification for higher office. But even the less obviously insane ones — Obama is faking job growth reports or secretly plotting to bring 100 million Muslim immigrants to the US — withered at the slightest scrutiny. Thoughtful, informed people weren’t taken in by Obama conspiracies because Obama didn’t lend himself to conspiracies.
But with 2017, a very different sort of person is set to take the White House and, along with him, a very different set of conspiracy theories. Unlike Obama, Donald Trump invites conspiratorial speculation. The FBI and the CIA currently believe Russia was trying to get him elected. Trump is involved in several shadowy business dealings that create an unprecedented conflict of interest. His cabinet is an unholy spiders’ next of foreign ties. He may have requested security clearance for his children, who are supposed to be running his business. Trump himself first gained traction in politics by spreading conspiracy theories of his own.
The question is not if Trump is involved in scandalous behavior, but what kind of scandalous behavior is he involved in, and when we fail to ask the second question, we create a toxic swamp in which “game theory” tweets like Garland’s look like “great writing.” We all know that every problem looks like a nail when you have a hammer, but the reverse is true too. When you have a nail, everything starts to look like a hammer. When your President is a lying, manipulative puppet of foreign powers, any accusation at all seems to have the ring of truth.
Take Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, who tweeted that Trump supporters erupted into a chorus of boos when Trump mentioned astronaut John Glenn at a rally. “A real American hero who risked his life 4 us,” Eichenwald bemoaned in the since-deleted tweet. “They booed.” That scoop got retweeted over four thousand times. Eichenwald later tweeted that he’d been wrong, and the crowd was actually booing Trump himself. That corrective tweet got retweeted about 400 times.
Or take the allegations that Trump raped a 13-year-old girl in 1994 while partying with known-pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. That’s a very serious accusation, and many on social media were wondering why the press refused to talk about it — taking it as one more piece of evidence that the media was in the pocket for Trump. The problem is, the accusation itself was fraught with so many holes and inconsistencies that most reporters said they had a difficult time taking it seriously. Brandy Zandrozny at The Daily Beast attempted to write a deep dive into the court case swirling around the accusation, and came away with more questions than answers. “Far from derailing the Trump train,” Zandrozny wrote, “[The accuser] and her supporters seem to be in an out-of-control clown car whose wheels just came off,”
The accusations needn’t even necessarily be strict accusations. Take this word from The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, an intelligent writer whose work I respect, which he tweeted while I worked on this article.
This is an incredible “thought.” Krugman seems to be suggesting that Trump has “incentive” to …allow? employ? a terrorist attack to shore up his credibility with voters. Thoughts like this belong to the same universe as Trump’s “many people are saying…” method creating news. Krugman isn’t actually claiming that Trump is planning on encouraging a terrorist attack on US soil. Just that he has a theoretical motive to do so. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. Just saying.
The problem is that all this wolf crying damages the credibility of journalists whose work we’ve never needed more. There has rarely been any invention by man in all history as useless as a fake Trump scandal. The number of real, legitimate, damning scandals Trump is involved in runs into the double digits. There’s enough here to keep us all busy without venturing into speculative, tin foil hat territory.
The shoe is now on the other foot for Democrats who spent the last eight years rolling their eyes about every insane, credibility-damaging conspiracy theory leveled against Obama. The responsibility must also be on them to do a better job than Republicans did at criticizing the President, sticking to qualifiable facts and real data. There has rarely been in a need for more vigilance and truth telling in the history of the country, and that means standing on solid ground. When you’re angry at someone, you’re liable to believe just about anything negative about them, but Democrats shouldn’t let their anger be a shortcut to legitimacy.