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Why liberal Washington can’t quit Twitter

They may hate Elon Musk, but they’re not leaving Twitter yet. “You will have to pry my fingers from my phone.”
Photo Illustration: Twitter birds circle the U.S. Capitol against a blue sky
Getty Images / NBC News

WASHINGTON — To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question many left-leaning and Elon Musk-loathing political influencers are debating — often on Twitter.

Washington was one of the first places to grasp the potential power of Twitter, and it may be one of the last places to abandon it as many raise concerns about the platform's new direction, despite the hand-wringing of its biggest blue-voting, blue-check-marked users.

“I’m just coming up with coping mechanisms for how I can still use this thing,” said Alex Vindman, the former Army lieutenant colonel and National Security Council official who was at the center of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. 

Vindman first joined Twitter while working in the Trump administration because it was often the way his then-boss, the president, made policy. 

But he’s now become a pseudo-celebrity on the platform, with almost 850,000 followers interested in his views on Trump and the war in Ukraine, where he was born. His wife, liberal activist and podcaster Rachel Vindman, has almost 400,000 followers, making them a progressive Twitter power couple.

Vindman sees Musk as a “purveyor of hate and division” and has exchanged personal attacks with the world’s richest man on the social media platform he now owns. But Vindman says he and his wife are likely not leaving anytime soon.

“If there’s an alternative, I’m happy to go there,” he said. “It’s just that there aren’t any real alternatives.” 

Vindman is hardly the only one with that view among like-minded tweeters.

“Until there is a viable alternative, I will be at Twitter and you will have to pry my fingers from my phone,” said Molly Jong-Fast, a writer who rose to anti-Trump “Resistance” fame and amassed more than 1 million followers.

President Joe Biden, when asked, suggested that Musk's purchase of Twitter should be subjected to federal investigation. But his official account remains active, including his using it on Thursday to post photos from the Oval Office of him and the wife of Brittney Griner after the WNBA player was freed from Russian captivity.

Washington power users feel conflicted because, beyond just patronizing a company with a problematic owner, they are creating much of the content that makes Twitter valuable, making some feel more like collaborators than consumers. 

“I want to be diplomatic. I think Musk is an entitled jerk, and so participating in a platform of his just helps him out, and I generally don’t like helping out entitled jerks,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Hillary Clinton’s typically mild-mannered 2016 vice presidential running mate. 

Still, Kaine said he’s “in dialogue with my staff” about leaving, showing that quitting is easier said than done. 

In a clubby city obsessed with status and information, Twitter delivers both, all from the comfort of one’s mobile phone. 

Journalists, politicians and activists can interact with the famous and powerful, slide into the DMs of a potential work associate or spouse, and amass their own power by building a large audience. Meanwhile, the platform’s 24/7 fire hose can keep even the most insatiable news junkies gorged with quality information, dunkable bad takes and insightful jokes.

“Some people I know have left. I’m not leaving,” said Norm Ornstein, the longtime Washington scholar and commentator. “To leave Twitter would be costly in a whole host of ways. I’ve got something like 230,000 followers. And that’s meaningful in a whole bunch of ways. ... I don’t know if I could recreate that.”

Twitter, it seems, may be another too-big-to-fail institution that even powerful Washington policymakers are saddled with.

“I wish I could get away from it,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., a former middle school principal with 386,000 combined followers. “And since [Musk’s] purchase, there’s even more vitriol and bullying and hostility and just inhumanity that takes place there. I feel awful as I scroll the things people say.”

But Bowman said his staff convinced him that social media is where many of his constituents get their news, so leaving could cut them off from critical information. “We have a responsibility to communicate to all of our constituents, so if we take that away we might be missing a lot of them,” he said in an interview just off the House floor.

Congress’ most famous liberal tweeter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a social media juggernaut with 14.2 million combined followers, is not ready to leave either, despite finding Musk abhorrent on many levels.

“There is a line where it becomes too toxic,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who is a frequent target of online harassment and sometimes receives death threats. She’ll quit Twitter, she said, when it “becomes so difficult to use that I’m not able to use it as a form of effective communication.”

Numerous politically active liberal celebrities have abandoned the platform, with singer Elton John announcing Friday that he was leaving because Musk is now “allow[ing] misinformation to flourish unchecked.”

Actor Samuel L. Jackson said on The View that Twitter “is not the real world,” so people should “just quit it.” 

While Jackson has his films, John has his sold-out arenas, and famous writers scribbling “Why I’m Leaving Twitter” essays have pages of august magazine credits from the likes of The New Yorker, most Beltway tweeters don’t have another platform where they can easily reach such a large audience. 

That includes even famous senators.

Asked to answer questions about the platform, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who has nearly 5 million combined followers, replied with a smile: “Definitely not Twitter.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., with 12.8 million followers, also waved off questions about the platform. “I just have not put any of my brain cells onto Twitter strategies,” Warren said.

No one wants to leave Twitter until everyone else does, but there’s no obvious place to go next.

Many users find alternatives like Mastodon and Post confusing, underpopulated and generally not ready for prime time. And past campaigns to ditch Facebook show how hard it is to get people to quit en masse, especially after the initial outrage blows over. 

Some think Musk will kill Twitter regardless of whether there’s a mass exodus of its users.

“What Elon Musk is doing is so egregiously destructive to a source of public knowledge and communication,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who serves on two committees that oversee tech companies, “It’s just really nihilistic and I don’t know that I want to be a part of that kind of thing.”

Asked if he’s reached a breaking point with Twitter, he replied: “Fast approaching it. … [Musk’s] destroying an institution.”

Washington officialdom is hardly alone in having a hard time quitting Twitter.

A new academic analysis of more than 140,000 Twitter accounts that used phrases or hashtags like “#ByeByeTwitter” found that only 1.6% actually left the social media platform entirely. “I’m not hugely surprised, because I’m one of those people that still posts on both,” one of the researchers, Gareth Tyson of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told New Scientist, referring to Twitter and rival Mastodon. 

Some political tweeters say they’re addicted, only half-jokingly. Others say it’s too vital a source of information to give up. Others cite higher-minded reasons, arguing they can’t cede the ideological battlespace. And all of them have personal brands to maintain, though few will acknowledge that.

Peter Sagal, the Chicago host of NPR’s political comedy show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” refused to buy a Tesla because he didn’t want to support Musk and instead ended up with a Chevy Bolt, which he calls “basically a glorified golf cart”

But giving up Twitter will be harder for the self-professed Twitter addict with more than 300,000 followers. He’s cut back on putting out his own tweets, but says the platform is still the best news feed around.

With a new 2-year-old son at home and after endless hours of "doom scrolling," part of him wants Musk to destroy Twitter so he could be rid of it and focus his energies elsewhere.

“There’s been a sense of elegiac farewell,” Sagal said. “Maybe it’s over. Maybe it’s like the end of World War II. It’s time to say goodbye, shake each other’s hands, and go home to our civilian lives.”

Three hours later, Sagal tweeted a Star Wars meme about the Yankees.