Twitter Battles Over Kavanaugh Nomination Roar

Social media fuels partisan fire

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is at the center of a partisan Twitter war. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is at the center of a partisan Twitter war. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 24, 2018 at 2:07pm

The political din over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination features the same kind of overheated rhetoric and partisanship of previous legendary confirmation fights. But this time, there is Twitter.

The preferred social media platform of President Donald Trump — the one that allows him to deliver his unfiltered message broadly and often shape the day’s media coverage — has introduced that same dynamic to the latest nomination for the high court, 280 characters at a time.

“It absolutely intensifies it, inflames it, because of the terseness and inflammatory messages sent out by both sides,” said Richard Perloff, a professor of communication and political science at Cleveland State University. “There’s no moderate Twitter.”

Sensationalism rules

It’s been a wild ride so far on Twitter and on other social media since Christine Blasey Ford went public with allegations that a teenage Kavanaugh sexually attacked her decades ago. The common theme, according to social media experts: Twitter creates partisan echo chambers, and gives everyone the same credentials in a way that circumvents the media’s traditional role of vetting and airing information.

“The more sensationalist it is, the more likely it is to pick up steam,” said Monica Stephens, a University of Buffalo professor who has studied how information spreads on Twitter.

The same day Ford detailed her allegation in The Washington Post, Donald Trump Jr. posted a mocking meme on Instagram of a letter meant to look like a young child wrote it in crayon. It was then broadly shared on Twitter. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake or Arizona reposted the image and said it was “sickening” to make light of the situation. His post got nearly 40,000 likes from people who may not have seen the image otherwise.

A Senate Judiciary Committee staffer posted and then deleted tweets and made his account private when liberal advocacy groups seized on them to say they showed bias. Kavanaugh supporters, from childhood friends and former co-workers to conservative activists, have declared their support by posting #IStandWithBrett on their Facebook pages.

It reached a surreal point Thursday night, when a prominent conservative in Washington legal circles posted tweets of maps, floor plans and photos to advance a theory that Ford accused the wrong guy — even naming the man, who is a middle school teacher. Ed Whelan later deleted the thread and called it “an appalling and inexcusable mistake,” but not until Fox News picked up and repeated some of his tale.

“Her allegations are so vague as to such basic matters as when and where that it is impossible for Judge Kavanaugh to *prove * his innocence,” Whelan wrote in one of the now deleted tweets. “But there are compelling reasons to believe his categorical denial. Let’s look at one set of the reasons.”

And Trump himself, after days of restraint, finally tweeted about Ford and her allegation Friday morning. GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a key vote, said she was “appalled” by Trump’s tweets, which got a combined 155,000 likes that day.

“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” the president tweeted. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”

That prompted the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport to trend on Twitter, where women shared all sorts of stories about why they didn’t report sexual harassment or assault.

Peek behind the curtain

All of this gives the public a real-time view into the behind-the-scenes thoughts and conversations between the media, political operatives and politicians that are often dashed off without thinking about strategy, said Ethan Porter, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Social media “cultivates this illusion of semi-privacy, we’re only talking to our friends, we’re only talking to our followers, no one can see what we’re doing in our feed, and that’s just false,” Porter said.

Stephens said Twitter doesn’t look for content that doesn’t violate its terms of service, making it a venue for circulating private and identifying information. Amateur online sleuths have misidentified people during the Kavanaugh confirmation process.

Ford’s attorneys, in a letter to the Judiciary Committee, said their client has been “the target of vicious harassment and even death threats” since she went public with her allegation.

“As a result of these kind of threats, her family was forced to relocate out of their home,” the letter states. “Her email has been hacked, and she has been impersonated online.”

Perloff, author of “The Dynamics of Political Communication: Media and Politics in a Digital Age,” pointed out other aspects of Twitter that fuel the partisan fire. It mobilizes advocates. It creates a public opinion environment in which people on one side assume their side is getting the better of the argument, and creates the perception that everybody feels the same way. The content is more toxic, fakery more plentiful. It intensifies aggressiveness.

And all of this — and facts in general, actually — changes people’s attitudes on the issues very little, said Porter, who co-authored a book called “False Alarm: The Truth About Political Mistruths in the Trump Era.”

Stephens said there’s evidence Twitter has motivated the country in a way we haven’t seen with other debates around Supreme Court nominations.

“But we also are likely seeing one sort of perspective,” she said. “There’s always going to be that echo chamber.”

In real time

In the rapid news cycle of negotiations about whether Ford would testify, Twitter has become a place where senators give their reactions to the latest news. On Friday, just before midnight, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, used Twitter to say that he would give Ford an extension. He seemed to be writing directly to the parties involved.

“Judge Kavanaugh I just granted another extension to Dr Ford to decide if she wants to proceed w the statement she made last week to testify to the senate She shld decide so we can move on I want to hear her,” the Iowa Republican tweeted. “I hope u understand. It’s not my normal approach to b indecisive.”

And then he addressed the other side: “Dr Ford if u changed ur mind say so so we can move on I want to hear ur testimony. Come to us or we to u.”

Ford ultimately agreed to testify in a public hearing set for Thursday afternoon — and the response to that development on Twitter was, of course, immediate.

Hours later, the Kavanaugh confirmation overtook Twitter yet again as two more women said they would come forward with information about sexual misdeeds in Kavanaugh’s past.

Watch: Anti-Kavanaugh Protesters Swarm Susan Collins’ Office, Arrests Made

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