For four years, America has been ruled by the tyranny of tweets, and the news media has been tangled in threads. Twitter threads are a way for journalists to gather information and to promote their work; Virginia Heffernan wrote in Politico that they have become the “literary form of the Trump era.” In some ways, virality has enabled marginalized voices to be heard, but an ecosystem ruled by likes and retweets is one in which nothing really has to be true, everything is entirely possible, and notoriety confers legitimacy. Traditional news outlets, vying for attention, reward online popularity with op-eds and TV guest spots, an ecosystem that has, in turn, given rise to a new class of political pundit—those who use Twitter threads to offer cheap clarity amid chaos.
One of the most prominent Twitter-thread stars is Seth Abramson, who came to the fore around 2017, as the American press was choking on news about Russian interference in the presidential election. Every story was cloaked in subterfuge: The hacking of the Democratic National Committee. That time Ivanka Trump sat in Vladimir Putin’s chair. When Donald Trump grabbed an interpreter’s notes and crumpled them up. The Miss Universe pageant. Cable news anchors sputtered out names: Maria Butina, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort. What did it all mean? If the frenzy of scoops presented a vast evidence board of clues and suspects, we needed someone to connect all the pieces into some kind of meta-narrative. Enter Abramson, on Twitter, arguing that out in the open was all the proof required to see the truth about our wildest fears and hopes: crimes had been committed, and the evidence was already being reported on by major media outlets. He was the man uniquely capable of pulling the loose threads together.
Now in his mid-forties, Abramson is a lawyer turned poet turned professor turned journalist turned influencer. His follower count on Twitter is close to a million—which, to compare his reach with political analysts employed by reputable outlets, is more than twice that of the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie, eight times that of The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, and eighteen times that of WNYC’s Tanzina Vega. His platform is powerful. From his first viral tweet—about how media outlets should not have put Kellyanne Conway on air—Abramson gained thousands of followers. Soon, he was offered guest spots on cable news shows, where he expounded on Trump’s and Russia’s misdeeds. His analysis—strung together over threads that are sometimes a hundred tweets long—offered a pleasant assurance: no, our country hadn’t voted for a racist misogynist; instead, we’d been manipulated by sinister outside forces—Russia, China, the Middle East.
Abramson began writing a regular column for Newsweek. He churned out books in rapid succession: Proof of Collusion (2018), Proof of Conspiracy (2019), and Proof of Corruption (2020). The first two were best sellers. He also started a podcast called Proof: A Pre-Election Special, which was, according to Abramson’s website, a “top 10 ‘Government’ podcast on Apple Podcasts in over 30 countries.” In October, he was a guest on Under the Skin, a show hosted by Russell Brand, who called him “charming, informative, brilliant, and bright.”
How you see Abramson is a kind of Rorschach test. He is either a rogue pundit or a media darling. Over emails with me, he claimed that he’d been offered a job by Politico as a researcher and that he’d advised Cuomo Prime Time, Chris Cuomo’s CNN show. (Matthew Kaminski, the editor in chief of Politico, said that “rings no bells” and that he didn’t know Abramson. A CNN source replied, “Absolutely not.”) Abramson also told me that he felt major outlets kept him at a distance. On Twitter, he sometimes rails about being ignored by “mainstream media,” as he did this past fall, when he shared a reporter’s comment about a Russian misinformation campaign with a note: “Imagine how powerful it’d be,” he argued, if journalists would only remind people that his recent book dispelling “every” lie was a best seller. “We wouldn’t have to respond to Kremlin disinformation piecemeal,” he added. When I asked Abramson about this, he went back and forth—touting his accomplishments one minute, complaining about dwindling interest in his work the next. “It seems the truth is that major media briefly was very comfortable letting their viewers and readers know they were paying attention to my feed,” he wrote, “and then major media’s interest level in my work stayed the same but the comfort level with being transparent about it plummeted.”
In truth, the reception to Abramson has been mixed: Bill Maher praised him for creating “a new literary event” with his tweets. Heffernan interviewed Abramson for Playboy, in which she attested to his “extraordinary kindness, his sly brain and his no-frills charm.” She went on, “He’s a midrange sedan amid the sleek BMWs of the cable-news set, and when I’m feeling vertigo in Trump times, it’s Seth Abramson I turn to for clarity.” Others have been less complimentary: “Abramson’s arguments not only denied political realities and delegate math as the race wore on; they often denied basic human logic,” McKay Coppins declared, in The Atlantic. “Long-winded and breathless,” Colin Dickey wrote, in The New Republic, adding that Abramson has a “conspiracy mind-set” in which “even the most mundane logistical details reveal a deeper, preordained plot.” But to dismiss his influence would be to ignore a core problem with how media outlets handle conspiracy, virality, and the specious assurances of online punditry.
On his podcast, Abramson has assured listeners that everything he says “comes from major media.” He adds, “None of it comes from my speculation or my personal belief. We’re just talking about major-media articles that slipped through the cracks.” His approach—a form of meta-journalism, he explains—aims to correct a failure of our existing information delivery systems to make sense of the news. Yet Abramson’s meta-journalism may not actually be journalism: it’s just him sitting at home, tweeting out stories he’s stacked together like a house of cards, without vetting them for accuracy. Abramson nevertheless argues that his method informs people better than traditional reporting ever could. As he said on his podcast, “I approached conceptually the problem of what to do with journalism and information exchange in the digital age and how we innovate in that realm.” Is this the future? Or is Abramson just a one-off, born of a chaotic, conspiracy-addled administration and social media virality?
To understand Abramson, he says, you have to understand what he calls his “poetics.” Or what most people would call his personality. From a distance, he can seem assertive, defensive, and self-aggrandizing. He blocks Twitter followers who have been mildly critical of him; he is relentlessly controlling of his image; he sends late-night emails that are overbearing, obsessive, and self-referential. He buries you in text. In person, though, he’s quieter: a classmate from his undergraduate days, at Dartmouth, remembers him arguing about politics, rarely socializing; peers at the University of Iowa, where Abramson was a student in the Writers’ Workshop, have only vague recollections of him.
To hear him tell it, Abramson was always a kid who preferred his own company. Born in 1976, in Concord, Massachusetts, he was the youngest of three. His father was a product manager for a computer company; his mother, a public school teacher. From childhood, Abramson saw the world in data points. When he was thirteen, he went to a basketball game at the University of Massachusetts with his sister; he loved it so much that afterward, he came home and wrote down every data point from the game. At Dartmouth, he worked for the student newspaper—though, as he told me, he didn’t like doing interviews; other reporters would do the fieldwork, bring him the information, and he’d write up the story. He’s always been a fast writer, he said.
Abramson wanted to become a lawyer and was interested in public defense. After college, he earned a JD from Harvard and got a job as a public defender. The work was draining and a little demoralizing. At night, to unwind, he wrote poetry. He started publishing his poems in literary magazines and websites and began thinking about getting an MFA. By then it was 2006, and Abramson had a Blogspot called “The Suburban Ecstasies.” He blogged about the various writing programs he was looking at; at one point, he decided to conduct a poll of his readers to find out which schools they were interested in, with a focus on financial aid. As ever, he wanted data. He asked MFA applicants to send him their preferences and, drawing from that information, the next year, he posted a ranking.
Immediately, readers had questions; the numbers seemed faulty. In the comments section for “The Suburban Ecstasies,” someone with the account name Qfwfg pointed out, “Your hard data shows that UVA and BU”—the University of Virginia and Boston University—“get fairly similar numbers of applications, yet your current poll shows UVA being four times as popular.” The commenter then asked, “What is the point of this poll?” Abramson doubled down, responding to complaints by insisting that his survey of applicants was scientific and trustworthy: Yes, certainly, a polling of people who read his blog was an accurate way to rank MFA programs. The back-and-forth was exhausting, the sort of petty conflict that emerges from academic feuds, where people have too much time on their hands and use words like “pedagogy.” But the rankings, flawed though they were, didn’t go away. Within a couple of years, Abramson was in the writing program at the University of Iowa and his rankings were being published in Poets & Writers magazine. However low the stakes were before, his ad hoc system had now gone mainstream. At one point, he tried expanding his data set by reaching out to schools for information; what he received back from them was inconsistent, though, and he didn’t account for the gaps. He had information, sure, but it was incomplete and misleading. By 2011, his critics raised their alarm to a new level: close to two hundred creative-writing professors and program directors signed an open letter pointing out the problems with Abramson’s ranking methodology.
Poets & Writers discontinued Abramson’s rankings. (The magazine did not respond to requests for comment.) Abramson was left feeling alienated from the poetry community; he claims to be one of the first people to have been “canceled.” Nevertheless, he continued to study and to publish. He graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went on to pursue a PhD in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin, where one of his instructors, the novelist Judith Claire Mitchell, described him as having always been “scrupulous, ethical, and always operating with integrity and selflessness.” He landed a job teaching communication at the University of New Hampshire.
As a poet and writer, Abramson fashions himself a metamodernist—a style he credits himself as having popularized in the United States (though there is little evidence of that). Metamodernism can be described, very simply, as a cultural philosophy that mediates between modernism and postmodernism (of which, it is assumed, meta-journalism is part). The Rumpus, where I used to work, published Abramson’s poems, and the poetry editor recalled liking some of them. But in 2014, Abramson wrote a poem that was a “remix” of the last words of Elliot Rodger, who fatally shot six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista, California. Rodger’s final words came by way of a video message that was little more than a misogynistic screed; Abramson’s poem was published by the Huffington Post less than thirty-three hours after the shooting. Critics accused the poem of being opportunistic, capitalizing on a mass shooting for clicks and internet fame—“Tragedy isn’t your canvas,” Jason Diamond wrote, on Flavorwire—and Abramson again found himself at odds with the poetry world. (He now calls the poem a failed experiment.)
Around that time, Abramson was following the career of Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf had recently released a short film called HowardCantour.com, which viewers had recognized as a direct copy of a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. LaBeouf apologized to fans by plagiarizing an apology. (This is an objectively bratty thing to do.) Abramson, in turn, wrote an article for IndieWire lauding LaBeouf and published a poem, “The Public Apology of Shia LaBeouf,” in which he purloined LaBeouf’s words. He also attempted to publish screenshots of LaBeouf’s Twitter feed in an annual literary anthology, Best American Experimental Writing, which he coedited. This resulted in a cease and desist letter from LaBeouf’s lawyer.
Abramson claims that, in the months before, he had been corresponding with Luke Turner, the author of The Metamodernist Manifesto and a creative partner of LaBeouf’s; because of that, Abramson believes that he was an influence on LaBeouf. “I’m the reason that Shia LaBeouf became a performance artist,” Abramson told me. LaBeouf says that Abramson was just trying to sell more books. When I contacted Turner and LaBeouf (days before allegations of abuse were brought against LaBeouf) both denied knowing Abramson. Turner wrote to me in an email that “neither Shia nor myself have ever had any association with that individual, nor has he ever had any influence on our work.” Still, despite everything, Abramson remains a fan.
All of this jargony obsession with metamodernism is what Abramson says led him to the Twitter thread. In his view, the form fit him naturally: “Short bursts of language carefully constructed on Twitter,” he told me. “That was inspired by being a poet.” Of course, conversation-threading existed before Twitter, on email chains and message boards—threading simply means linking a group of messages, oldest first. On Twitter, it’s taken on a life of its own. Abramson does not get credit for that, though; it’s a fool’s errand to argue that anyone on the internet did something first. But if we had to, the honor would probably go to Dan Baum, who in 2009 tweeted the story of how he was let go from The New Yorker, an experiment in micro-serialization that Gawker declared a “watershed moment” for telling stories on Twitter. In second place would be Aziah “Zola” Wells, a nineteen-year-old woman from Detroit, who spun the first mega-viral Twitter thread, in 2015, about going down to Florida with a “white bitch” named Jessica, Jessica’s overbearing boyfriend, and a pimp named “Z”; the story involves people jumping from fourth-floor balconies and a fatal shooting. (Zola’s thread was turned into a movie that premiered last year at Sundance.)
Nor was Abramson the first person to post Twitter threads purporting to expose Trump’s seedy enterprise. What distinguished him was that he was harder to dismiss than others were, because of his putative authority as a public defender. But lots of people are lawyers, and not all of them are experts on Russian organized crime. Abramson—who, for the most part, was stringing together theories based on coverage he’d read—often turned out to be mistaken. Like the time he asserted that Papadopoulos was wearing a wire: he had to be, Abramson just knew. And then it turned out that, in fact, Papadopoulos wasn’t wearing a wire.
On one occasion, Abramson claimed to have an inside source, which justified a theory that he posted about Trump and the Miss Universe pageant. Basically, the whole event was a setup through which Trump aimed to curry favor with Putin. In 2017, Abramson declared in a thread that this represented a violation of federal criminal statutes. A New Yorker story later reported on the pageant in depth, making note of Trump’s “willingness to embrace dubious partners” but, for lack of evidence, stopping short of identifying a crime. Later, the Mueller report likewise turned up no lawbreaking, only a lot of shady dealings with a lot of shady men. But the truth is a less satisfying sound bite than “Donald Trump violated civil forfeiture laws.” Abramson’s version went viral.
For a clearer picture of what has been reported about Trump and Russia, I called Greg Miller, a national security correspondent at the Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer in 2018 for his reporting on the subject. “What we know is that there was a crazy amount of disturbing contact, interaction, and kind of mutual affection—or admiration—between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign,” Miller told me. “And that is it. As far as we know, from the work of Robert Mueller and investigative journalists, there appears not to have ever been a formal agreement in writing or memorialized between Trump and Putin: You deliver me the White House and I’ll deliver your foreign policy shopping list.” It’s frustrating, Miller told me, when he sees his work wedged into a narrative that doesn’t hold up. But what can you do? Miller understands how the desire to believe that America is controlled by a nefarious foreign power has become entrenched in our national consciousness. But the evidence just isn’t there. When we spoke, Miller quoted from All the President’s Men: “These are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” Then he added, in the case of Trump, “They’re not only not that bright, but they are inordinately clueless and completely craven.”
Dickey, who criticized Abramson’s overreach in The New Republic, is the author of The Unidentified (2020), a book that examines fringe beliefs and how they influence culture. When I called him recently, he attributed the popularity of Abramson’s news meta-narratives to a need for control during a time of cultural upheaval. “It is, perversely, more reassuring to think that the Freemasons, Illuminati, Jews, Catholics, or the Kremlin are controlling everything behind the scenes, pulling the strings, than it is to believe that the world is out of order,” he said. Or that half the country is really racist.
Abramson dismissed those criticisms; Dickey hadn’t read his books. (They had not yet come out when Dickey’s piece, focused on the threads, was published.) But I have read Abramson’s books. I read all of the Proof books and listened to the podcast. The books are more careful than the tweet threads—they stop short of claiming corruption—and frankly don’t live up to their titles, as “proof.” They are dense, mostly unreadable summaries of other people’s reporting, with little synthesis. Abramson is meticulous about sourcing, yet it feels a little disingenuous: he can say that his assertions have been verified by “major media reporting” and if he’s wrong, it’s not his fault; if he’s right, the facts were always there in front of us, and only he was smart enough to see the big picture. (How can he be a conspiracy theorist, he asked me, if “it’s all reporting from major media outlets”?) Slap a label of “proof” on the cover and call it meta-journalism—when really what you’ve done is news aggregation, selling three books based on other people’s work and claiming to offer proof of things that these very same journalists have said they cannot, did not, find.
Abramson wrote his first Proof trilogy book in nineteen days, a process he called “agonizing.” He denies doing it for the money, insisting that he is a public servant and educator. He just wants the truth to get out there, he told me. But his virality speaks to a different kind of validation, one that is less about monetary reward than cultural capital. And he is rich in influence—his threads are amplified by National Book Award–winning poets and esteemed journalists, who continue to grant him unearned authority. He has a Substack now, too, where he performs what he calls “curatorial journalism” and makes yet more sort of true, if questionably sourced, claims. Next up: he’s at work on a graphic novel about citizen journalism and a memoir, tentatively titled Thread.
Since Trump left office, and America has begun to recover from a media cycle that revolved, endlessly, around a cruel and vindictive White House, it’s important to remember how easily we let conspiracy leak into our lives, into our TV shows and our punditry and our thinking. How quickly we smashed the retweet button, how little we thought about it. And how dangerous it is to live in a world built entirely of your own words, with no vetting, no editing, blocking critics, until everything is a mirror shining you back at you.
Nevertheless, Abramson continues to tweet out thread upon thread: About China and the virus and trade. About Saudi money. About an NBC executive who had allegedly been informed by former Secret Service sources about a contingency plan in case Trump refused to leave the White House. (Upon further investigation, the executive was actually retired and used to run a “tour experience” for Universal Studios.) Abramson also tweeted extensively about the violent mob that stormed the Capitol, leading to the deaths of five people: “Over the past week, this feed has compiled over 250 major-media reports about the January 6 insurrection Trump incited,” he began. More than fifty threaded tweets later, he added: “PS/ Please consider retweeting the first tweet in this thread (my pinned tweet), if you haven’t done so already. Many journalists and politicians follow this feed—thousands, in total—but I’d love for this picture of the current state of the evidence to reach even more folks ASAP.” (As long as social media companies profit from our breathless sharing, there can be no divorcing form from function.)
Abramson has also held on to his pet theories. On his podcast, and in his first Proof book, he makes arguments based on the Steele dossier. (Remember the Steele dossier? You know, the pee tape thing.) The reliability of the Steele dossier is, to put it mildly, in question; a report by Michael Horowitz, the inspector general, found that the dossier was dubious, unvetted, and shady as hell. Of course, people still believe it and defend it—Abramson continues to cling to it uncritically—but the point is: it falls short of proof. Journalism, of the meta or curatorial sort, isn’t worth much if it can’t meet that standard. And that’s the trouble with Abramson’s interpretive threads. Pull on any one of them, and the whole tapestry unravels.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correctly spell the name of Matthew Kaminski.
TOP IMAGE: Art by Lyne Lucien