The fastest-growing career in America is not, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics would have you believe, in installing and repairing wind turbines. The fastest-growing career is doing 63 tweets in a row about why Donald Trump is a Manchurian president.
An increasing number of D-list Twitter celebrities are spewing unhinged takes and loosely-connected conspiracy theories about the still-developing story of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election. And they’re building sizable online fanbases among frustrated liberals by telling them exactly what they want to hear.
Most recently, Seth Abramson—a Huffington Post blogger, former attorney, and assistant English professor at the University of New Hampshire who once “remixed” mass shooter Elliot Rodger’s last words into a poem—has emerged as the reigning king of diarrhea tweeting. Instead of simply threading his tweets like the rest of us plebes, Abramson has billed them as “mega-threads,” and their repackaging and promotion often take the form of a snake eating its own asshole:
One such iteration of Mega Man’s mega-threads, a 40-tweet thread (not including the appendix, footnotes, and acknowledgements), “The plot to sell America’s foreign policy for foreign oil and steal an election in the bargain began at the Mayflower Hotel,” was predicated on the idea that Trump moved a speech last April from the National Press Club to the supposedly smaller Mayflower hotel and lied about the reasons—including a need for a bigger event space—in order to arrange a secret meeting with ambassadors who were in attendance. Abramson alluded to one possible reason why, saying, “The #Russiagate scandal involves claims Trump was given 0.5% of Rosneft and aid in getting elected in exchange for lifting US sanctions”—without sourcing that claim to anyone in particular. In typical self-congratulatory fashion, Abramson even suggested a name for the scandal should it break wide open because of his Tweets.
One major problem, as a late update to a glowing Daily Kos post about the thread pointed out, was that Abramson was wrong about the size of the event space—the Mayflower is bigger than the National Press Club—and relied on the deceptive claim of neoconservative columnist Jamie Kirchick that the Center for National Interest has “ties to the Russian regime.” Last year, the CNI’s magazine called for “The United States [to] pursue confrontation [with Russia] where necessary and mutual interests without illusions where possible.” Abramson’s entire theory was built on faulty assumptions.
[Update, April 5: After publication of this piece, Abramson wrote that the event took place the Mayflower Hotel’s secondary State Ballroom rather than its Grand Ballroom, something that he hadn’t previously specified. The State Ballroom is indeed a smaller space than the National Press Club, but the hotel’s website indicates it’s possible for the State and East ballrooms to be combined. When I called, the hotel told me that the specific room used for the speech couldn’t be disclosed for privacy reasons.]
In another thread this week, Abramson admitted that “citizen journalists”—among whose numbers he counts himself and fellow conspiracist traveller Louise Mensch—are “more prone to mistakes.” But in the same thread, he managed to take credit for reporting what the “mainstream media” won’t even as he cited the BBC’s reporting. It is a common thread in Abramson’s writing: The idea that the American media won’t “fully investigate” the Russian stories, when the fact is that the American media has been covering the story nonstop (and sometimes breathlessly) since before the election, and most of what Abramson himself knows has been culled from reporting done by American media outlets.
But the broader problem here is that there are so many unknowns that all it takes is a reasonably informed Twitter user to connect unrelated/innocuous/potentially spurious facts into a grand conspiracy. In many, many tweets—often so manic and so creatively capitalized and punctuated as to be indecipherable—a tweetstormer mixes prior reporting by others with their own speculation and passes it off as a comprehensive account of what may have happened. It’s unfalsifiable by nature. And it finds an audience desperate to believe.
Comfort has become a cottage industry, and Russia is the most pressing subject of the moment. Abramson, for example, maintained until May 11 that it was still possible for Bernie Sanders to win the nomination. These columns, along with others by writers like H.A. Goodman, filled a need for Sanders fans. But while Goodman has continued to write about lefty issues like single-payer, Abramson has fully devoted himself to Russia. (It also appears that Abramson deleted all of his tweets before August 9.)
On Russia, Abramson—who first wrote about Russian electoral interference in December—has become the latest in a line of self-anointed experts tackling intensely complex legal and geopolitical questions which he believes himself better equipped to unravel than anyone else. When Eric Garland declared it time for some game theory on December 11, it kickstarted a movement of people devoted to fulfilling the Russian conspiracy fantasies of forlorn liberals everywhere.
Prior to the election, Garland mostly wrote mostly about business and markets for various outlets including The Atlantic and Harvard Business Review. But in a now-legendary thread of 127 Adderall-and-alcohol-fueled tweets, Garland—who runs a “competitive intelligence consulting firm”—laid out a scenario wherein Russian intelligence led by President Vladimir Putin had, in a flashback to Cold War espionage, destabilized seemingly every facet of American politics through a long series of covert operations.
The explanation that we’re living in a spy novel absolves Democrats of responsibility for the election results. Garland’s view fits perfectly with how some liberals would prefer to see the world: that leftists and right-wingers alike are nothing more than useful idiots of an all-knowing Putin, Hillary Clinton’s campaign couldn’t have done anything differently (like, say, go to Wisconsin), and, at its core, America is great because America is good. It is wish-fulfillment in its purest form.
The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, a dogged investigative reporter on Trump’s finances, called Garland’s thread “great writing, in a form that doesn’t usually lend itself to greatness.”
Clara Jeffery, the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, referred to the rant as a “Federalist Paper for 2016.”
(Writing more critically for Slate, Sam Kriss got closer to the truth when he called Garland’s thread the “common roar of establishment liberalism in the age of Trump.”)
While the brand of Game Theory Guy hasn’t proven to be directly commercially successful—Garland’s Patreon, as of this writing, has 23 contributors for a total of $197 a month—Garland has built a brand for himself, getting a lengthy profile in Business Insider and amassing a substantial Twitter following. On February 8 of last year, Garland had 4,802 Twitter followers; the day after his rant went viral, he had over 22,000. Four months later, he has over 85,000.
Then there’s former British Tory MP Louise Mensch, who moved to the U.S. and calls herself a “conservative Republican.” Mensch has emerged since Trump’s election as some sort of go-to expert on the scandal, even being published in the New York Times opinion pages.
Since writing a story in November claiming that the FBI was granted a warrant from a FISA court to investigate the ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia (the New York Times and the BBC disagree on whether this happened, while the Guardian reports the warrant was requested but denied), Mensch has peddled a litany of conspiracy theories. She’s claimed that Russian agents killed Andrew Breitbart, said that xenophobia in England after the recent London terror attack was the doing of “partisans of Russia,” and presented “informed speculation” that both Trump and Jared Kushner are “on tape at secret Russia spy meetings Kushner called at Trump Tower.” She also thought Charlie Hebdo was a guy, and that the founder of Zionism was an anti-Semite (and threatened to mute him on Twitter, despite his having been dead for 113 years).
If all of this were confined to Twitter and blogs with names that sound like they’re definitely going to give you a virus, it’d be hardly worth mentioning. These liberal Twitter all-stars, however, are emblematic of an InfoWars-style approach to the Russia story that’s becoming endemic among too many Democrats, and only growing every time a new Garland pops up to tell them what they want to hear. Last week, the Center for American Progress, one of the leading liberal think tanks in the country, launched an initiative called the “Moscow Project,” dedicated to its own investigation of the Russia mess. On Tuesday, Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert asked unironically, “What kind of dossier does Moscow have on Nunes?” Never mind the fact that Devin Nunes was on the Trump transition team and seems to have landed Intelligence Committee Chair by sheer luck—it’s easier to believe that Russian agents have successfully blackmailed a Congressman than he might just be a partisan hack who’s trying to protect a Republican administration from further scrutiny.
The idea that Russia attempted (at the bare minimum) to influence the election has merit. Yet we get more questions than answers every time a new Times or Post scoop is published, or when Nunes opens his mouth. These questions are all the harder to answer once you realize that the public hasn’t gotten anything close to a full and transparent investigation, and most likely won’t until Republicans are sufficiently frightened by the prospect of losing their seats in two years to do something about it. And in a way, that’s what enables people like Garland and Abramson and Mensch to thrive. For a lot of people, wild speculation delivered with a veneer of authority sounds like the closest thing to the truth.
You need look no further than national security writer Marcy Wheeler to understand that there’s a place for independent or “citizen” journalists, or at the various instances where the media has gotten big things wrong to know that you should read all stories, even in reputable publications, with a healthy dose of skepticism. But there’s a large difference between making a genuine mistake and actively misleading readers because providing comfort is more important than providing truth. It’s no surprise that the conspiracy tweetstorm market is thriving, because what the snake-oil salesmen are peddling is really themselves. What’s disconcerting is how many people are buying it.
Paul Blest is a journalist living in North Carolina. He was previously a staff writer at Indy Week and has written for The Nation, Vice, The New Republic, The Week, and others. You can find him at Twitter @pblest.