When Peter Daou rose to social media prominence during the 2016 election campaign, he was known for being a staunch defender of then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and a committed critic of her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. Even after the surprise loss of the former Secretary of State, Daou continued his fierce advocacy of Clinton; perhaps in an effort to cement her legacy as more than simply being the person who lost to Trump.
The persistence of Daou’s advocacy for Clinton made him an easy target online, as did his now-defunct media platform ‘Verrit’. Founded in late 2017 and designed almost exclusively to support the former candidate, Verrit drew a mixed reaction (to say the least), being compared to North Korean Agitprop by Politico, while also getting an influential shout-out from Clinton in an elusive Tweet broadcast to her over-25 million Twitter followers.
These days, however, Daou is more likely to be found Tweeting criticisms of Democratic nominee Joe Biden than he is to be found praising Clinton — his former boss. In a change of heart so head-spinning it could give you whiplash, Daou went from being a prominent, online defender of the Democratic establishment to being a revolutionary almost overnight. As late as May 2018, Daou was continuing to criticise Sanders for his role in the 2016 election, but by the next month he was calling for unity between the two embittered sides of that primary, while simultaneously calling for the abolition of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and defending card-carrying Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Political converts appeal to our innate sense of narcissism; confirming our own sense of intellectual superiority
At first, Daou’s olive branch to supporters of the Vermont Senator he had once had so much contempt for, was couched in the rhetoric of ‘vote blue no matter who’, rather than in any actual ideological shift. Yet this focus on unity did not extend to the now-Speaker of The House Nancy Pelosi, whose leadership he rejected, and soon it would no longer apply to his former boss either, who he penned a Guardian op-ed attacking not long after he explicitly refused to go after her.
Now, in 2020, Daou’s political transition from de-facto Clinton spokesperson to anti-establishment outrider is complete. After endorsing Sanders in his match-up against Biden, Daou has refused to endorse the former Veep in his fight against Trump and has used the Tara Reade allegation to pressure the presumptive nominee to drop out of the race. Daou’s political evolution has stunned former allies and he is unlikely to get another promotional Tweet from the first female major party nominee any time soon. Yet, for all the backlash Daou has received, he also gained a whole new following; boasting nearly 300,000 Twitter followers and writing articles that get shared thousands of times. Daou’s newfound internet fame isn’t just because of his passionate defence of progressivism or his support for Sanders himself —after all, there are thousands of people on social media echoing the very same talking points Daou uses, yet doing so to an audience a fraction the size of his. What sets Daou apart is that he isn’t just another online leftist, he’s something far rarer and far more coveted; he’s a political convert.
Anyone who’s ever gotten into a political argument, be it online — with a self-described social media activist — or in person — with the archetypal racist uncle at Thanksgiving — will know how hard it is to truly change people’s worldview. As soon as we’re born, our ideologies begin to be formed — usually inadvertently, but more rarely and more menacingly, on purpose. The families we are born into, the people we are surrounded by, the media we consume and, the dinner table discussions we internalise, all determine our earliest political self, and for many people this is their final political form.
Even among those who move beyond their “factory settings” (as writer Bridget Phetasy refers to it), most maintain broadly the same ideology they were raised with — ironing out the rough edges and inconsistencies of their worldview, rather than changing it in it’s entirety. All the research on this topic is undeniably depressing and, quite frankly, poses serious questions about the survival of liberal democracy — in particular, how (or, if) it can survive in the face of ever-growing hyper-partisanship.
Those who are active on social media are disproportionately affluent and politically engaged. The discussions they are having, and who they are having those discussions with, are vastly different to that of the majority of the American people
Despite the internet giving us access to a historically unprecedented quantity of information and an incredible diversity of opinions — which should, hypothetically, free us from the echo chambers we grow up in— in reality, social media strengthens echo chambers more often than it breaks them down. Even when people are confronted with opposing viewpoints, their own views are often strengthened by opposition, because it forces them to defend and find evidence for their own, existing beliefs.
All in all, we live in a time where partisanship is more entrenched than ever. The social media age has given us an even greater number of like minded people to surround ourselves with and use to confirm our pre-existing assumptions. Meanwhile the growing importance of ‘culture wars’ has made immutable characteristics, like race and gender, greater predictors of voting behaviour than in any other time in recent history. Gone are the days of 50 state election sweeps and 80%+ Presidential approval ratings. Now, we live in a time where your most important characteristic is the team you belong to — red or blue, left vs right — and if you show even the slightest hint of dissent; you are a deviant, whose desire to leave your echo chamber makes you ostracised and misunderstood by the rest of your tribe. To convert to the other side instantly singles you out and carries high risk of alienation from your original allies — yet the upside of taking on this risk can also be immense.
Peter Daou isn’t alone in having made a name for himself as a political convert. Ryan Knight, whose Twitter username ‘ProudResister’ seems somewhat misleading now, has made the same shift Daou has, from Democratic party loyalist to left-wing, anti-establishment ideologue. Like Daou, he has that weird social media fame that comes from having hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, while experiencing near non-existent name recognition outside of online circles.
While both Daou and Knight have undoubtedly attracted a large number of new followers because of their leftward shifts, their pre-existing social media success makes it hard to determine how much of their following is a result of their political evolution and how much is simply a hangover from older days. Yet, a number of social media users have demonstrated that the power of being a political convert is so great that not only does it allow you to improve existing social media success, it can turn you into an overnight success.
We live in a time where your most important characteristic is the team you belong to — red or blue, left vs right
David Weissman is a perfect example of this. The former Trump supporter had an unremarkable Twitter following until he declared his breakaway from the Republican Party — penning an article in The Forward explaining the reasons for his ideological shift. Published at the height of The Resistances’s popularity and shared by Hillary Clinton, the piece propelled Weissman into a six-digit Twitter following, which includes the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Yang, George Takei and Patricia Arquette.
On the right, an entire movement has been built around the premise of politically converting from the Democratic Party to the Republicans, known as ‘#WalkAway’. The founder, Brandon Straka, who had failed in previous attempts to drum up social media support, went viral after explaining the reasons for his departure from the Democratic Party. While all available data would suggest that during Trump’s Presidency more people have walked towards the Democratic Party than away, Straka was still able to grow the movement into a viral hashtag — promoted on Fox News and by Trump Jr — in less than 60 days.
So what is it that makes political converts so irresistible to online partisans? On the surface, they don’t offer anything particularly unique to the discourse —using the same tactics and rhetoric as the rest of their Twitter armies — and despite having experienced being on both sides of the aisle, most don’t offer any great insight into how to win over those with opposing views. All of this can leave a casual observer wondering what exactly makes these people more successful than anyone else espousing the same viewpoints.
Whether wittingly or unwittingly, what political converts do is appeal to our innate sense of narcissism — confirming our own sense of intellectual superiority. After all, it’s one thing to believe something after you were brought up to believe it, but it’s a totally different thing to believe something after you’ve spent an entire lifetime with people who believe the exact opposite. What political converts signal to the people they agree with, is that their viewpoints are so obviously superior to their opponents that this supremacy is clear even when the only people you’ve ever heard from are ‘the other side’.
The power of being a political convert is so great that not only does it allow you to improve existing social media success, it can turn you into an overnight success
Political converts also serve the purpose of re-assuring their newfound ideological allies, by convincing them that they will win the allusive ‘war of ideas’. By repeatedly telling the story of becoming disillusioned with their former party, people make the assumption that others will do the same thing and will have the same realisation that the convert did. Social media ‘activists’ are constantly pointing out supposed flaws in their opponents ideas and, when a former opponent starts doing the same thing, said flaws start to seem almost painfully obvious. The thinking goes; ‘if one person could see the flaws in their side’s arguments and came to their senses, surely it’s only a matter of time before the rest do the same.’
This idea that ‘eventually we will be victorious’ is hugely re-assuring to people across the aisle, who are convinced in grand conspiracies against their side and currently feel like they’re losing the major electoral and/or cultural battles of the day. Each side has a story they themselves over and over again about how eventually they will have the majority of voters on their side. The right tell themselves that as voters get older, they will become more ‘sensible’ and come over to their side, while the left comfort themselves with the youth and diversity of their movement — telling themselves that their coalition will soon go from the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ to the coalition of the majority.
Political converts help each side in telling themselves this story. However, any sense of confidence gained from political converts may be misguided. Most political converts cut their political teeth on social media sites like Twitter, which are fundamentally unrepresentative of where the vast majority of voters are at. This means that the issues that impact how they vote are fundamentally different to the issues that play most heavily on ordinary voters mind’s. For instance, a popular reason given by converts for their change of heart is that they find their old allies to be ‘too mean’ or ‘too uncivil’. While the temperament of a movement’s supporters is undoubtedly important, it’s also not very influential in how people vote (so-called ‘Bernie bros’ aren’t top of mind for your average voter on election day). Fundamentally, those who are active on social media are disproportionately affluent and politically engaged. The discussions they are having, and who they are having those discussions with, are vastly different to that of the majority of the American people. Political converts are often no more or less unrepresentative in their worldview than anyone else on social media, yet their status as a convert gives them an enhanced sense of legitimacy that can give activist-types the wrong idea of how to win over the other side.
Ultimately, the social media power of political converts is clear, as are the reasons for them having such power. For taking the risk of leaving their original political tribe, the possible reward for converts is high — with some even being able to quit their old jobs to become full-time politicos. Some make their political transition because of genuine disillusionment with their former party, others have less admirable motivations; lending themselves to accusations of grifting. Yet, it’s almost impossible to tell who fits into each of these two categories, and regardless of what the motivations are behind the shift in opinions, people would be wise not to put converts on a pedestal — after all, they’re no less susceptible to the excesses of social media than the rest of us.