When Don Cheadle and Debra Messing talked about what they thought of a New York magazine piece about Bernie Sanders saying the 2016 primary was rigged, it wasn’t at a cocktail party. Or a premiere. Or even out in the open on social media. As Vox’s Emily Stewart writes, it was in a new type of private Twitter DM group that progressive influencers, activists, and political campaigns are increasingly using to mobilize and coordinate their messaging to the rest of us.
In a bid to catch up with the kind of social organizing that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House four years ago, now progressive celebrities are using these same tools to leverage their own influence and followings. As part of an invite-only network called the Decency Collective, started by a former staffer in New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, celebs congregate in dozens of private Twitter direct-message rooms organized around specific issues, geographies, and events. Some of the bold-faced names in these groups cited by Vox include Gabrielle Union, Alyssa Milano, Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Tom Colicchio, Mark Ruffalo, Piper Perabo, and W. Kamau Bell.
This is the latest example of a fracturing in social media, with celebrities retreating from the kind of spontaneous, personal statements and insights that made platforms such as Twitter so fun to begin with. Now public social media is less a place for authentic engagement and rather just another type of highly manufactured broadcast media. Last year came the emergence of Community, the text-based walled-garden platform that allows celebrities not only to have more information and control over exactly who their audience is but also to communicate with those fans away from the prying, poisonous eyes of trolls.
In these Twitter DM groups we now have celebrities organizing their thoughts and responses away from those same trolls in order to present a united front in the public social sphere. Where once it may have been a personal assistant helping to craft that perfect tweet about your morning routine, now Celebrity Twitter has become a partner (or tool, depending on your level of cynicism) of the political consultant class. There’s power—and safety—in numbers.
When Alyssa Milano and Piper Perabo tweeted to raise awareness and support for Democrats in Wisconsin and Minnesota, it was part of a coordinated effort organized within these private DM groups. As Stewart writes, on the day that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump in September, Perabo advised fellow DM group members to have “disciplined messaging,” and Messing advised the group to follow Pelosi’s lead and use the hashtag #ExposeTheTruth.
If we want to defeat Trump we MUST stop him from winning Minnesota! He was only 1.5% away in 2016, and it’s his top flip priority for 2020.
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 7, 2019
While it may prove effective in countering similar efforts on the right, this professional organizing in private to coordinate public messaging in public doesn’t sound much like the world of authentic engagement promised by the initial proliferation of social media.
It’s just more of the same ol’ media we’ve always had.