Hillary’s first tweet: A 2016 harbinger?

Trivia and speculation signifying nothing

After more than four years representing the US abroad as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton returned to the domestic political fray last Monday with a tweet from her new @HillaryClinton account. The former first lady, senator, and presidential candidate is one of the most prominent Americans in public life and the early favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. As a result, her every move is considered newsworthy. The celebrity-style coverage she receives can be innocuous, albeit silly, in some cases (Hillary and Chelsea took a selfie!), but the frenzy over her first tweet and wild speculation about its meaning suggest that another Clinton run would exacerbate the political media’s tendencies to overhype trivia and construct flimsy personality-based narratives about politicians.

Clinton’s tweet was portrayed by many as the initial step in a presidential run—a conclusion encouraged by Clinton’s Twitter bio, which ends “TBD…” The Christian Science Monitor even headlined its story, “Did Hillary Clinton just drop a presidential hint on Twitter?” But public figures tend to have Twitter accounts these days; creating one doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s aiming for the Oval Office. As Diana Reese wrote on The Washington Post’s She the People blog, moving to Twitter makes sense whether or not Clinton decides to run for president again:

Even if it turns out that all Clinton wants is to carve out a niche at the family foundation and wait for Chelsea to produce that first grandchild, tweeting has benefits. It can help build an audience for her upcoming memoir, due out in June 2014. Twitter’s another method for protecting her reputation and her legacy, which have been endangered from the GOP’s attempts to blame her for Benghazi.
Even if Hillary’s Twitter debut does turn out to be the first step in a presidential run, the tweet generated a ridiculous amount of coverage, including fascinating rundowns of celebrity reactions on Twitter. (A sample from the AP’s story: “Rocker Tommy Lee tweeted, ‘Welcome to Tweeeeeeeeter Hillary!’”) BuzzFeed went so far as to annotate some mundane edits to her Twitter bio (“‘Pantsuit fashionista’ became ‘pantsuit aficionado’”).

With so little news to discuss, other reporters and commentators resorted to conjecture, building elaborate narratives around the tweet and what it supposedly illustrated about Clinton’s personality or campaign strategy. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith set the tone early. Under the headline “Hillary Clinton’s First Tweet Shows What She Fears Most,” he wrote that Hillary’s “painstaking Twitter rollout is the digital representation” of her “neurosis” about seeming old or being perceived as a candidate of the past. The New Republic’s Noreen Malone asked how “one semi-sentence” allowed Smith to “see straight into the heart of Hillary and capture her deepest neurosis”—but when journalists have their crystal balls out, a few words is all that it takes to set a narrative in motion.

The mind-reading became even more blatant later in the week when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn weighed in. Dowd asserted (based on no evidence) that Clinton’s bio was “no doubt written by an aide and focus-grouped to death” and “included six changes the calculatedly, obsessively whimsical Hillary made after it was posted.” Likewise, Quinn, who writes a column on faith, devoted more than 600 words to speculation about why Clinton didn’t mention religion in her Twitter bio, which somehow led her to think that Hillary is using her daughter as a spiritual stand-in:

Could it be that Hillary is letting Chelsea handle the faith angle so that she doesn’t seem to be pandering to a religious audience? Your guess is as good as mine.

Remember, all these analyses are based on a 23-word Twitter bio and one tweet. Will all 2016 coverage be this dumb? TBD…

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , , , , , , ,