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Lessons from Tea Party Tweets

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I've been thinking a lot lately about the activist filter bubble, the reverberating echo-chamber of insular social media and political networks that keeps progressives marginal and talking to ourselves. Recently, I've had several different Tea Party twitter accounts follow me (at least four this week alone) and began talking to friends about whether or not this means they are:

1) building lists of progressive activists for potential future smear-campaigns;

2) following their opposition so they can Retweet things out of context to scare/outrage their base; or

3) genuinely interested in hearing perspectives outside their own echo-chamber. Whatever their purposes, it reminded me that we can learn a lot from the way our opposition presents itself through social media forums (of course there is a lot of deception that we don't want to emulate, but there are some transferrable best practices mixed in too). A few minutes ago I got an email notice that @TheTeaParty_net is following me.

1) Their twitter profile (which I see in the notification email) succinctly states the values they profess to hold: "Limited federal government • Individual freedoms • Personal responsibility • Free markets • Returning political power to the states and the people" I already know what they stand for and I haven't even looked at their twitter feed yet. In fact, their statement of values is likely the thing that will make me choose to look or not look.

And here's what I notice from literally five minutes of browsing their twitter feed:

2) Constant creation of an "us vs. them" narrative, inviting people to identify as part of their group ("us") and asking people to take a small action (retweeting) to signal their insiderness. A kinestetic action simple as pressing a button helps solidify the choice that was made by the tweeter. It asks them to take a stand, pick a side, and then reinforces that choice with a physical action that their peers can see. They ask their tweeps to do this on a regular basis.

3) Affirmations. Following their followers, retweeting their follower's invitations to pick a side, constantly reinforcing that they're on the same team.

4) Online to offline: responding to inquiries and connecting tweeps to on-the-ground groups. Even if these groups are astroturf or don't exist, it creates the appearance of a genuine social movement and reinforces Tea Party mythology about being "grassroots."

5) More on the appearance of grassroots decentralized organizing: there isn't a centralized Tea Party twitter account. There are hundreds of them, each with a few hundred to a few thousand followers. They are constantly retweeting each other and referencing one another. From a 20 second glance at their feed I find: @GreaterBostonTP, @anchTeaParty, @wacoteaparty, @teapartyprotest, @teapartypodcast, @TPPatriots (there are many many more).

6) A right flank. Lots of posts attacking Republican politicians from the Right, pushing the "center" further and further to the right, forcing Republicans to take more and more extreme positions.

7) More inside/outside strategy. While pushing Republicans from the far-Right, they simultaneously identify their tweeps with the GOP, but as an insurgent force within the GOP. That means building voter allegiance to the party, but not allowing their politicians to compromise on their behalf.

 

8) Victim complex. Reinforcing the perception of being unfairly maligned to embolden their base to see themselves as activist agents-of-change instead of keepers of the status quo. The victim complex, like a cult, builds unity, cohesion, and side-steps critique.

...This post wasn't based on expansive research, or even a particularly deep or thoughtful analysis. It was based on a cursory look at one twitter feed -- and that's the point. Within a quick glance, the Tea Party clearly communicates its values, articulates a worldview, asks people to pick sides, reinforces that decision, offers (at least the illusion of) real-life action opportunities, and offers a range of messages that reinforce those objectives. This is worth paying attention to and learning from. And not because the Tea Party are brilliant organizers or anything -- most of their "movement" is smoke and mirrors reinforced by large media-megaphones, dominant narratives, and Fox News. But its clear that they know how to communicate an idea, and that's very powerful.

Cross-posted from Beyond the Choir.

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