A congressman, a senator, and a journalist talk about social media and the Twitter echo chamber
Public Notice interviews Rep. Dean Phillips and Sen. Tina Smith.
I spent a good chunk of this week working on a freelance project about how voters engage with members of Congress. As part of it, I interviewed two Democratic members of Congress from Minnesota, Rep. Dean Phillips and Sen. Tina Smith. Not all of what I discussed with them is germane to this newsletter, but for this special Friday edition, I thought I’d share some excerpts that speak to issues at the intersection of media (or social media) and politics that I write about often here.
Phillips is a second-term congressman representing a purple-ish district in Minneapolis’s western suburbs. He doesn’t always agree with Nancy Pelosi and is willing to go on Fox News, but he’s a reliable Democratic vote. And he made some major waves last weekend with a tweet blasting Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Steve Daines for posting a screenshot of a call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had with members of Congress from his bunker.
Phillips acknowledged his tweet got so much traction because “there’s a lot of hypocrisy in Washington” and “nothing bothers Americans more than it.” But he was also broadly critical of Twitter, describing it as “a platform that simply rewards antagonism, and promotes it.”
“The sad truth is that tweets that throw a little bit of shade tend to be the ones that get people made,” he said. “It's a perverse incentive system, and it's one that my colleagues and I are increasingly recognizing the dangers of. We're struggling with it because we shouldn't be an institution or a country that provides incentives to be mean spirited, divisive, derisive. Just the opposite.”
In that respect, Phillips thinks Twitter uniquely corrosive among social platforms.
“This is just anecdotal, but when I post something positive on Twitter — and I try to, regularly, [about] bipartisanship or a thoughtful outcome or breaking bread with someone of a different perspective — the vitriol that usually results from that, or the lack of interest, is really noteworthy,” he said. “When the same is posted on Facebook or Instagram or other platforms, it's remarkable how much more engagement and how much more appetite there seems to be.”
“We're spending a lot of time on Twitter, and not recognizing that's like fishing in a stream instead of the ocean,” he added.
And yet Phillips is quite active on the platform. He keeps his DMs open and reads as many of them as he can. And he said he enjoys interacting with people of different political persuasions.
He told me:
I've got one constituent in particular who will remain nameless. He reached out somewhat antagonistically on Twitter with a DM. I surprised him by responding respectfully. And for months now we've continued an ongoing dialogue. He often shares with me a very, very conservative perspective — I wouldn’t even say conservative — a Fox News perspective. And I engage with him regularly and I let him know that I appreciate it, that my job is to listen, my job is to represent not just those who may have voted for me, and that by listening to his perspective, it actually is accretive to my service. I love those conversations.
Before our conversation ended, I circled back to the Zelensky video call and asked Phillips if the version of events Rubio has presented since he came under criticism — the Florida senator said that nobody was asked not to post images from the meeting until well after it began, and that posting one didn’t really represent a security risk anyway — is consistent with how he remembered things going down.
“It’s inconsistent with the truth,” he said.
“I'm not the ranking member in the United States Senate Intelligence Committee. I'm not even in the United States Senate Intelligence Committee, and I knew that it would probably be inappropriate to tweet or post during a live video call with the president of Ukraine who is in a bunker during a war,” Phillips added. “Even Senator Rubio acknowledges there may have been 300 of us on the call. Two hundred and ninety eight of us, without even being told just minutes into the call, adhered to the ambassador's request. So I can leave it at that.”
“I always say that it's the Twitterverse, not the universe”
Tina Smith was then-Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s choice to replace Al Franken when Franken resigned from the Senate in December 2017. The next year, she won a special election to complete Franken’s term. In 2020, she defeated Republican Jason Lewis by more than five percentage points to win a full term in office and extended Minnesota Democrats’ still-active streak of not losing a statewide election since 2006.
Though she was a very outspoken critic of former President Trump, especially after the January 6 insurrection, she’s worked with Republicans on healthcare, Postal Service reforms, agriculture, and more. She also has a good sense of humor.
Given that Smith represents a state of more than 5.6 million people, she said it isn’t feasible for her to respond to Twitter DMs, and she advises constituents to contact her through the form on her website, which her staff monitors.
And while she’s active on Twitter, Smith echoed Phillips in drawing a distinction between hot social media topics and what her less-online constituents care about and need her help with.
“I always say that it's the Twitterverse, not the universe,” she said. “Not everybody is on Twitter or Facebook. Twitter is a great place to sort of stay in touch with activists and elites and the press. And Facebook skews older rather than younger.”
Smith said that her staff puts together a report each week detailing what topics are foremost on the minds of constituents who contact her office. The results may come as a surprise to the terminally online.
“The weekly report from last week, so this would've been February 28 through March 4, the biggest issue in terms of case work was people that are dealing with immigration issues and visa issues, followed by folks that had questions about foreign affairs.”
Last month we got 36,000 plus pieces of mail. And over 2,000 of them were around agriculture issues. Almost 7,000 of them were on healthcare issues. And so that would be very different from what we would've seen on Twitter, which would've been much more focused on kind of, I guess I would call it the news of the day and people responding to the news of the day. Whereas this is more, I think, connected to what's going on in people's lives.
I replied by pointing out that agricultural issues rarely if ever rise to tending status on social media.
“That’s true,” she said, chuckling.
Call it yet more evidence that Twitter is not real life.
— Donald Trump joined Sean Hannity for an interview last night in which Trump went to painstaking lengths to avoid criticizing Putin, even as Hannity encouraged him to do it.
Trump also claimed he had some sort of secret agreement with Putin where he received assurances from the Russian strongman that he wouldn’t attack Ukraine while he was in office. If that’s true, it’s hard not to wonder what Trump offered Putin in return …
— Finally, what better way to kick off the weekend than with two solid minutes of Jen Psaki schooling Peter Doocy during yesterday’s White House press briefing?
That’s it for this week!
I’ll be back to the normal Monday-Thursday publishing schedule next week. Until then, have a nice weekend!