OLD TWEET SYNDROME: Old Tweets Have Become A Powerful New Weapon

Twitter projectile by Tom White

Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq. Professor, Media Ethics and Law, NYU
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Samantha Bee is one very ticked-off lady, and she blames Twitter. Did someone post her personal address? Did someone tweet photos of her in flagrante delicto? Nope. She’s just one of the more recent and notable victims of a widespread pandemic that has infected social media, politics and journalism: Old Tweet Syndrome.

Bee is a comedienne who’s enjoyed some success riding the leftist “we are the cool kids” train first engineered by Jon “I’m just a comedian except when I’m not” Stewart. If it is a snarky, rude or insulting cheap shot leveled at a conservative, libertarian (or God forbid, some cretin who voted for Trump) Bee can’t help herself: she knows what her barking seal audience wants, and she gives it to them. (Shakespeare called it “playing to the groundlings”).

In the course of getting her trained seals to clap, Bee effusively lauded New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a messiah, a savior, no, make that a superhero (literally) who would finally rid us of The Scourge that is the president. Err, make that former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. And that’s where the fun begins.

After Schneiderman, a woke, enlightened, progressive #MeToo kind of guy was exposed as a freak who enjoyed slapping women and treating dark-skinned paramours as “slaves”, Bee had no choice but to walk back her hero worship. Schneiderman had retweeted Bee’s fawning characterization of him as a superhero. “He’ll save us from Trump!” she squeed. When the truth about this male feminist came out, a humiliated Bee went as far as demanding that Schneiderman delete his self-congratulatory reposting. “Take this down”, she demanded. It’s still online.

Old Tweet Syndrome: a new form of “oppo”

Anyone remotely involved in political journalism understands the concept of “oppo”: opposition research material, including documents or even old interviews from the past that can be used to discredit or even attack political opponents. In honest moments, journalists in DC will admit that it is the currency in which they trade. Got dirt?

What makes Old Tweet Syndrome different than old-fashioned oppo is that it is more direct and not subject to being polluted by editing or interpretation. Showing the reader old interviews or even video clips highlighting a politician’s hypocrisy or outright lie requires some filtering and processing on the reader’s part. It scans. For example, the YouTube clip of President Obama laughing off Mitt Romney’s concern about Russian political aggression should have given the lie to the current obsession with trying to connect President Trump to the Russians. Obama treated Russia as a joke back then (zinger punchline and all), but suddenly, if it helps invalidate the 2016 election, well, Russians are the most horrible, terrible, evil, nasty people ever. But even a short video clip requires the reader to stop and consider context, inflection and questions about editing.

Not so with Twitter. Tweets are a direct statement, ostensibly a politician taking his or her cue from FDR’s “Fireside Chats” and speaking from the heart directly to the public. Because Twitter demands short concise statements, they are easy for a reader to digest. In short, a Tweet becomes an albatross, an anchor around the neck of the politician or celebrity who uttered whatever drivel they uttered. Hence, Samantha Bee ought to be mortified and embarrassed that the public learned that she fell for the faux-progressive hero, hook, line and sinker.

The three symptoms of Old Tweet Syndrome

Old tweets are brought up for any one of three reasons: First, they’re great fodder for embarrassing ideological opponents for taking positions that are now recognized as stupid; Secondly, they lend themselves well to “et tu quoque” claims and pointing out hypocrisy; and finally, they are always useful in America’s Second National Pastime: knocking down the same people that the media and public built up as folk heroes.

Media has become chock-full of Old Tweets used to embarrass ideological opponents. Like Bee, New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s tweets supporting Schneiderman as “representing the values of New York women” have come back to haunt her. That’s not to imply Gillibrand knew Schneiderman was a liar: but it fairly calls her judgment, gullibility and self-interest into question. Similarly, MSNBC personality Joy Reid has come under scrutiny when old tweets of hers revealed a deeply disturbing homophobic attitude that runs counter to her “progressive” brand. Taking a cue from the Anthony Weiner playbook, Reid crazily claimed that her account was “hacked” more than a decade ago despite the fact that the old tweets long preceded her rise to national fame. (Perhaps the vast right-wing conspiracy finally got its hands on a time machine).

Neither Gillibrand nor Reid have suffered any real consequences (and I’m not convinced they should). Gillibrand can simply say she was “fooled” by yet another example of toxic masculinity. Reid on the other hand, enjoys the infamous opacity of NBC, known for investigating itself and keeping its process under wraps. In either event, this symptom presents itself as a form of ridicule: “Look how stupid and easily fooled my ideological opponents are.”

Old Tweets are now used to puncture more than politicians and pundits. Celebrities and athletes are now subject to having their every utterance scrutinized – often by fans – to knock them off their pedestals. Country singer Blake Shelton was discovered to have posted homophobic, xenophobic and generally tasteless “jokes” on Twitter as far back as 2009. Fans dug up old tweets posted by ultra-woke Trevor Noah making fun of fat women and hypothesizing what it would feel like to run over a Jew while driving his German car. First round NFL draft-pick Josh Allen also had offensive tweets posted when he was in high school unearthed only a few weeks before the draft. It didn’t seem to hurt him much: after a public apology for posting “dumb things” the Wyoming quarterback went to the Buffalo Bills and stands to make $21,481,462 on his rookie deal plus a $13,693,282 signing bonus.

Most public relations specialists I’ve talked to (none of whom wanted to go on the record) said that by and large celebrities can rehabilitate their images by immediately “owning up” to their mistakes, apologizing profusely and asking for forgiveness. As PR Week noted in a recent article, “it’s not a death sentence.”

And then there’s Trump

To be sure, I can’t think of a public figure who has had more contradictory tweets supporting allegations of hypocrisy than President Trump. The BBC, among others, have aggregated some of these old tweets. They range from criticizing President Obama for playing too much golf, lambasting the previous administration’s staff turnover, to wondering aloud about what it would take to impeach Obama. So why hasn’t Trump suffered Old Tweet Syndrome and taken the cure of abject apology?

In search of an answer to that question I spoke with Scott Adams. Adams, best known as the creator of the “Dilbert” cartoon strip, is also quite studied in hypnosis and communications. In the run-up to the 2016 election Adams proved himself to be the most accurate and prescient observer of Trump’s communication style. Without endorsing or criticizing the specifics of Trump’s platform, Adams was one of the earliest to predict that Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton, and did so based on an analysis of Trump’s skills as a “master persuader.”

“Unlike the politicians and celebrities left to face the music for old tweets, Trump is resistant — even Teflon — because he inoculated the public ahead of time,” Adams said. He went on to explain that instead of starting out as some idealistic icon, most Americans knew how Trump operates before the election. “Trump is singular in his ability to ‘take the shame’ [of contradictory tweets] because Americans knew he was a Democrat in the past, [he had supported liberal causes such as Planned Parenthood], was long known as something of a playboy and came right out and told America ‘I’m no angel.’” In other words, Trump made himself bulletproof to hypocrisy charges by setting a lower bar of expectations. Current history seems to bear this out: his supporters care far more about the trade deficit and immigration issues than extending Stormy Daniels’s 15 pointless minutes of fame.

Adams also attributes Trump’s Teflon coating to what he calls the “Bed of Nails” theory. “One nail can pierce you,” explained Adams, “but if you bunch them together you can sleep on them. In the same way, Trump has exploited his opponents’ constant attacks. At first he was called crazy, and that didn’t pan out. Then they said he was the New Hitler, and that didn’t come to pass. Then they challenged his competence which also failed to bear fruit. Then they went after him on alleged ‘chaos’ in the White House and that’s not going anywhere either. Basically, Trump’s opponents have emptied their clip and are just firing blanks now.”

So what’s the cure for Old Tweet Syndrome?

I’m not sure that there is one. The technique of beating people over the head with their own past statements long precedes social media, and Twitter just seems to give people on both sides of the aisle a bigger cudgel. That said (and God knows I need to take my own advice here) it seems that we have one of three choices. The first school of thought says that when you’re caught out, apologize profusely and explain that the offensive tweets do not represent “who you are.” (This is not unlike President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s “I’ve evolved” excuse for having opposed gay marriage for so long).

The second school of thought recommends that you be circumspect about what you publicly post, lest your words boomerang against you. On one hand that seems like common sense. After all, we’ve all heard the stories about prospective employers nixing college graduate applicants who thought posting pictures of themselves puffing away at a beer bong was a good idea. But outside of that context this advice seems to implore and incentivize self-censorship at best and insincerity at worst.

The third approach — which seems to be the one Trump has taken — is to say whatever pops into your head at the moment and not give a damn. In our current culture of “triggering” and the professional outrage industry, that’s a pretty gutsy play and probably effective only for those with nothing to lose. Perhaps it’s solipsistic, but at the end of the day as I’m fond of saying, perhaps Polonius was right, and the best advice is to our own selves be true.

Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.