It shouldn’t be hard, one would think, to simply not tweet. That’s all it would have taken to spare Neera Tanden the situation she’s in: Had she kept her political outrage to herself, or shared it offline in the company of friends, she might be sailing to confirmation as director of the Office of Management and Budget, rather than watching the chances of her nomination slowly dwindle. And what would have been the loss? The internet is overflowing with snarky diatribes about Senators Susan Collins and Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell. A veteran political player, who might someday need Cruz or Collins or McConnell for a vote, should have known it would do her no good to pile on. And, on some level, she did know: In 2016, she told an interviewer, “I’m willing to concede I should tweet less.”
Instead, Tanden did what a lot of us do: She went for the dopamine hit, again and again. Over the past few years, she tweeted that “a vampire has more heart than Ted Cruz,” compared McConnell to Voldemort, and called Collins “criminally ignorant.” It wasn’t just Republicans she angered; she was also known for tweaking left-wing rivals like Senator Bernie Sanders, suggesting in one tweet that Russia had helped Sanders in the 2016 election. Some have detected sexism in the sudden rush to scold her, but Tanden stands out among Biden’s Cabinet nominees for the edginess of her social media posts.
In hindsight, it looks like a repeated lapse of judgment. But to some extent, this was part of Tanden’s job. As a president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, she was frequently deployed as an attack dog, especially during campaigns and news crises. And Twitter was a natural ally in that work—like Washington, it was also a place where making all the right people mad could be an asset.
But Twitter has its own way of tempting you into provocative tweets, and then turning on you—especially when you make enough enemies from different points on the political spectrum, and they find a common moment for revenge.
A onetime Boston political boss named Martin Lomasney, who wielded power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had an oft-repeated rule for politicians: “Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink.” Lomasney would surely have run in the other direction from Twitter, which isn’t just public but permanent. Yes, Donald Trump played the platform like a virtuoso; other politicians have used it savvily to bypass gatekeepers and build a base of loyalists. But for a political player, every tweet is fraught with peril: Even if you aren’t overtly insulting someone, there’s a chance some statement from your past will contradict a current political stance, or apply with poetic justice to a compromising situation.
Still, political types are also human beings, and the temptation to pour every thought onto Twitter, in search of a reaction, is ultimately biological. When you put out a tweet, anticipating a “like” or a “share,” your brain gets a hit of a pleasure neurochemical, says psychiatrist David Greenfield, founder and medical director of the Connecticut-based Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. At the same time, he says, the brain cuts off its pathways to the frontal cortex, the area that governs judgment. Once, this shutdown of higher-level thinking was a convenient evolutionary tool, Greenfield says: Prehistoric hunter-gatherers needed to shut out reason to serve the higher directives of mating and eating. Today, though, it has given us an internet that functions like “the world’s largest slot machine,” he says, as users embark on an endless hunt for validation. Tanden’s nakedly partisan tweets could derive her plenty of pleasure; one tweet during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh—“Susan Collins’ terrible treatment of Dr. Ford should haunt Collins for the rest of her days”—drew 3,097 retweets and 8,295 likes.
In the age of the ideological bubble, political tweets pose a specific kind of risk. If you’re sharing like-minded partisan thoughts with like-minded people, you’re likely to forget that you risk a negative reaction, says Whitney Phillips, a communications professor at Syracuse University and co-author of the upcoming book You Are Here: A Field Guide For Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. “You speak in a code that’s appropriate for the audience,” Phillips says. But once your statement lands in front of a less-friendly group, your intentions don’t matter. “It’s impossible to control any of our messages,” she says. “You can only focus on the consequences.”
Phillips cites an internet axiom known as “Poe’s Law”—coined in the early 2000s, on a message board for creationists, when a user who called himself Nathan Poe declared that it was hard to discern the true believers from people who were being sarcastic. On the internet, Poe’s Law holds, you can’t know anybody’s true intentions. A commenter could be sincere or mocking, a real human being or a fake account. Anger could be deeply-felt or cynically overblown. And it’s easy to weaponize the outrage machine. It was a right-wing provocateur—hoping to reveal what he saw as Hollywood hypocrisy—who unearthed incendiary old jokes about rape and pedophilia from “Guardians of the Galaxy” filmmaker James Gunn’s Twitter feed in 2018, Phillips notes. But it was left-wing outrage over those tweets that ultimately got Gunn fired.
Tanden’s tweets, it’s fair to say, weren’t as troublesome as Gunn’s. She was largely pumping out standard-issue political snark, the kind Trump used to post from the White House on nearly an hourly basis. Still, there are rules of political conduct, and—if you’re not Trump—consequences for breaking them. In 2008, Samantha Power, then an advisor to presidential candidate Barack Obama, resigned from the campaign after telling a Scottish reporter that Hillary Clinton was a “monster.” Power had violated a norm: voicing the kind of insult that’s usually shared, Lomasney-style, outside the public view. (Post-election, her career recovered quickly.) And, like Gunn, Tanden succeeded in getting both groups—those on the left and the right—on her bad side. If everything you tweet can be used as ammunition in the future, it’s particularly lethal when it’s coming at you from all sides.
Tanden clearly realized that old tweets could cause her trouble in this new career moment, when she had to emerge from her Clinton-Biden bubble and confront her onetime targets in the flesh. Soon after Biden named her to the budget post, she deleted at least 1,000 tweets. But the internet never forgets. And, in keeping with Poe’s Rule, it has been hard to tell who on Capitol Hill is truly horrified, and who merely senses a political opportunity. At her confirmation hearing before the Budget Committee, Sanders chided Tanden for her “vicious attacks made against progressives. People who I have worked with. Me personally.” But he also has a longer-standing beef with Tanden over the 2016 election and her ideological agenda. And he seems not the type to wither in front of an insult.
Tanden did her duty and apologized profusely, hinting that she wanted to distance herself from the cesspool Twitter had become. But the truth is, she was following the rules of her chosen medium all along. There’s no point in tweeting if you aren’t saying something that can rile people up. “Our networks have been designed for this exact outcome,” Phillips says. “The most rancorous stuff becomes the stuff that is most visible, that has the most purchase.”
In other words, the internet did everything in its power to make Tanden act the way she did, rewarded her with nearly 377,000 followers, then punished her in the end. And yet, with every tweet, she had free will. Greenfield counsels his patients who want to change their internet habits to never actually type out a tweet in the “compose” box, in Twitter or any other social media platform. Rather, he says, type your message in the Notes app, think about it for a minute, and cut and paste when you’re good and ready. Martin Lomasney would have considered that decent advice.