Despite complaints that you can't say anything complex in a tweet, the truth is you most definitely can. But even though it is possible to put forward meaningful, compelling arguments within 140 characters, if there's a sustained, influential and simplistic counter-argument levied against your efforts to explain something complicated, it makes gaining traction for your argument increasingly difficult. This is the dynamic we see unfolding in the final two weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign.
On the one hand, we have the Clinton campaign trying to explain that the so-called "October Surprise" dropped by FBI Director James Comey is essentially absent of any facts, looks into emails in someone else's account and violates Justice Department rules not to interfere in elections within 60 days prior to voting. To complicate matters more, Comey's letter to Congress indicated that no one at the FBI yet knows what's in these emails, if they were classified or not, or if there are any emails among them that were not already provided to the FBI by Clinton.
As you can see, this is a very complicated issue that can't be simplified into a single tweet - and while multiple tweets, infographics, snaps of longer text, or links to explanatory blog posts, articles, or videos can be shared by Clinton and her supporters, the nuance of the argument creates an inherent challenge in gaining adequate traction among the electorate.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, is using his Twitter account, and his 12.5-million-strong audience, to repeatedly share his incredibly simple message that the FBI has "reopened" her email case, proving that she is corrupt and belongs in jail instead of on the ballot. This is a very simple message, and while it takes significant liberties with the facts, it is gaining traction. It's gaining traction because not only is it a simple message, but because it also reiterates the accusations Trump has been making for many months.
The effect is that people who have bought into Trump's argument all along are creating a huge amplification chamber on Twitter for Trump's over-simplified, misrepresentation of the facts. And once the message leaves Trump and gets repeated by many of his supporters, whatever nuance Trump may have offered (and there is little of that) gets stripped away in a national game of "Telephone."
Thus we see a political upheaval that is significantly larger than the actual substance of Comey's letter, let alone the ultimate facts on the ground. This is the nature of battling for the presidency on Twitter.
Historically, when a politician is able to master the new, dominant media channel they're able to seize the political advantage. We saw this when FDR mastered the press conference (one thousand of them) and radio (Fireside Chats) during his 12 years in office. We saw JFK master televised debates in the 60's in order to defeat Nixon - when most radio listeners of those same debates felt that Nixon had won them. LBJ turned a single airing of the "Daisy Commercial" into hours of coverage on network news in 1964 to defeat Barry Goldwater. Ronald Reagan made televised speeches feel like he was in your living room having a conversation with you. Barack Obama turned email, social media and mobile messaging into powerful means for connecting with voters. And now Donald Trump is using Twitter to create a 24/7 direct-line connection with the voters.
Though these innovations create powerful advantages for the politicians that master them, the effect they've had on our nation is not always positive. On the one hand, they create more accessibility and transparency, which improves trust in government and political efficacy. On the other hand, they bypass the media, undermining the role plays as fact-checkers.
It may be that the marketplace of ideas will ultimately sort out the facts and fiction being shared now regarding Huma Abedin's emails, but given the proximity to Election Day, it's entirely likely that this won't happen until after we all vote.
And that's the problem.
I've always been a big fan of Twitter. I've always taught people how to use Twitter to present complexity, despite the 140-character limit, but when faced with someone who shows consistent disregard for facts, who questionably paints his opponent as being a worse liar than himself, and who commands a huge Twitter audience of supporters who are willing to accept his narrative as fact, it's hard to see Twitter's role in this election as positive.
Still, I don't blame Twitter. In the end, as is true with all political media, it's what individual politicians say via these mediums that matters. Politicians are responsible for their own integrity, it's wrong to blame any media channel for their dishonesty. Marshall McLuhan's argument that the "medium is the message" is true in many respects, but in the final analysis, those who speak over any medium must be held accountable for what they say.
If a candidate is using a media channel to override facts with fiction, that's a serious problem. But if the people fall prey to that behavior - if they lack the media and information literacy needed to see through that behavior - that's a far bigger issue.