By Ian Sherr
A couple of months after Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman had a stroke in May, his Republican opponent and former TV personality Mehmet Oz posted a link to his more than 3 million Twitter followers. “Hoping to make it to a *Fetterman for Senate* campaign event? Details are linked below!”
The website, paid for by Oz’s campaign, depicted Fetterman as an overweight, shirtless and “lazy” “basement bum” as he recovered. Fetterman returned to the campaign trail in mid-August and leads Oz, who’s been endorsed by Donald Trump, in the latest polls.
The move instantly became the subject of national talk shows, cementing social media even further as America’s latest battleground ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. And that battle is turning bleak.
Many candidates are now following in the steps of Trump, whose frequent harassing, bullying and rule-breaking posts to Twitter turned the political world upside down during his 2016 bid for the White House and then his four years in office. As a result, political and social media researchers say, the midterm elections have seen Trump-like behavior become the norm rather than the outlier. Candidates and elected officials are more often taking to Twitter to spread lies and disinformation, to attack their perceived enemies, and to troll fellow politicians.
Further, a majority of Republican nominees on the ballot for this November’s midterm elections have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, according to a report from the Washington Post, posing a threat to America’s democratic principles.
On some extremist-filled alternatives like Gab and Telegram, candidates are calling for civil war and advocating violence against the government while they echo Trump’s rhetoric that their political opponents are evil.
“Time to take the gloves off,” Florida Republican congressional candidate Laura Loomer wrote on the social networking apps Gab and Telegram in August after a scandal over Trump’s reported hiding of top-secret government documents at his Mar-a-Lago residence and golf club triggered a raid from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Loomer, who’s described herself as “pro-white nationalism” and a “#ProudIslamaphobe,” continued to attack the FBI even after the Department of Justice said it found many of the US government’s most sensitive secrets at Trump’s complex, despite his staff’s declarations they’d already been returned.
“If you’re a freedom loving American, you must remove the Words decorum and civility from your vocabulary,” Loomer wrote. “This is a WAR!” She was banned from Twitter in 2018 for violating the site’s rules against hateful conduct.
Just south of her, Republican Luis Miguel, a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, took it a step further. “Under my plan, all Floridians will be able to shoot FBI, IRS, ATF, and all other federal troops on sight,” Miguel tweeted. “Let freedom ring.”
These posts are extreme, and in Miguel’s case got him reportedly banned from Twitter. Both candidates lost their primary bids. They also didn’t respond to requests for comment. But experts say their approach to social media follows a pattern of dangerous internet-grown fanaticism invading the political world, particularly on Twitter.
People may turn to massive platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and YouTube to get the latest news on their favorite celebrities, talk about big sports games or participate in the hottest new trend. But Twitter in particular has solidified its foothold in American politics, turning into a crucial tool for lawmakers to communicate with both their constituents and the media organizations that follow them. And the results have dramatically reshaped the political process as well.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of resources devoted to social media,” said Bradford Fitch, head of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, which works with lawmakers’ offices to help improve how they operate. Congressional offices now typically have two people devoted to media, rather than one person a decade ago, he added. And more lawmakers are now posting to their accounts, rather than having aides do it for them.
“On some level because it hits and accelerates the national psyche,” he said. “We are seeing over time, the incentives are for members of Congress to be outrageous.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, one of Twitter’s most-followed users who’s finalizing a $44 billion purchase of the company, has said he plans to remove the few guardrails Twitter has to discourage harassment and bad behavior. Such a move has been widely criticized by civil rights and anti-hate groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, who say Twitter needs more moderation, not less.
Of course, social media didn’t create hyper-partisan lawmakers. Congress has over the years been home to plenty of bullies, conspiracists and other unsavory types. In the 18th century, for example, two lawmakers got into a brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives over the country’s diplomatic approach to France. In the 19th century, one senator drew a pistol and pointed it at his rival in the Senate chamber during a debate over slavery. Though today’s antics are comparatively tame, there are still plenty of lawmakers who pushed conspiracy theories about everything from climate change to the racist lie Trump himself promoted that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US, thus disqualifying him from public office.
Meanwhile, attention online isn’t a guarantee of success. Freshman North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn quickly became a right-wing social media star when he was sworn in as one of the youngest lawmakers ever. Though he’d become a celebrity, controversy soon followed. He lost his seat to a lesser-known Republican primary opponent in May.
Social media has even changed how lawmakers communicate when they’re at home and at the US Capitol. Fitch’s research found that members are much more partisan on social media when they’re in DC, rather than the people-pleasing persona they take on at home.
Republican strategists have said social media offers another telling benefit. Posting online allows politicians to circumvent traditional news organizations that often ask questions and hold them accountable for whether they’re spreading a lie or telling the truth.