© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
A sign with removed characters is seen on the Twitter headquarters building.
Last year, Democratic candidates spent more than a million bucks on Twitter ads, per The Washington Post. Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP

It’s 2024. Elon Musk Rules X. And the Political World Is Still Addicted.

Paid ads for political candidates are all over the platform, and politics insiders are secretly buying blue checks.

While former President Donald Trump was actively being convicted by a jury of his peers in New York City last week, Democratic strategist Tim Hogan did what just about everyone in politics, media and the surrounding D.C. ecosystem did: He flipped open the social media app X, f.k.a. Twitter, and began furiously scrolling.

“Twitter still critical on days like today,” he tapped out. “There is no replacement.”

He deleted the post shortly after publishing it, in what appeared as a perfect articulation of the love-but-wish-I-didn’t relationship many in the political world now have with Twitter.

“I guess you have your lead,” Hogan laughed in a phone interview about his tweets with NOTUS. The delete was not intended to be poignant, Hogan said; he periodically deletes the ones that aren’t “bangers.”

But he stands by his point: Political elite circles are on Twitter once again, only in a weirder fashion than before Elon Musk took over at the end of 2022. The argument is over; the hellsite is back. It’s a win for Musk, but one that people absolutely do not want to hand to him. In interviews, users said Twitter is not what it was, but also it’s not as bad as it was in the most chaotic days after it became Musk’s to do with as he pleases. People do not like to be on it, but they also once again have to be. Two years after words like Mastodon, BlueSky, Post and Threads became rallying cries and users declared war on the blue check, those who made Twitter what it was in the days before Musk have returned to using X.

“It’s a little bit like — with different stakes, of course — a little bit like the Trump administration,” Hogan said. “He won in 2016; it was horrible. We said we were going to move to New Zealand or Canada, but the reality is we had to ride it out. That is a little similar to this platform.”

Musk has notoriously trashed the media on X and drove industry stalwarts like NPR away with policies they said undermined their credibility. NPR is still gone, but others are now paying up for access to what remains one of the most powerful audiences in social media. NOTUS pays for a gold check that promises “better reach” for content, among other benefits. A number of for-profit news outlets have bought similar access.

Multiple D.C. tweeters said they knew people — everyone says they know one, no one will admit they are one — who paid for the site but chose a setting that keeps the blue check hidden so no one would know. When that setting was threatened, many of these people panicked.

It’s not just the media part of the political universe paying up for the privilege of accessing Twitter users. Paid ads for political candidates are all over the platform. Last year, Democratic candidates spent more than a million bucks on Twitter ads, The Washington Post reported.

One reason for this is that ad buyers love a bargain. One digital political strategist familiar with X told NOTUS that buying advertising on the site had become much cheaper recently, amid a broad advertising pullback from nonpolitical commercial interests on the platform. That’s led to an even greater return on investment for campaigns, the source added.

Another is that Twitter is back when it comes to politics. A second source said that the site remains a popular destination for people highly engaged in politics, many of whom are prime targets for a campaign looking to expand its list of donors.

“Campaigns are seeing it pay off,” said a national Democratic strategist working on campaigns this year.

Outside politics, Musk appears to be losing on X, which he formally renamed shortly after buying it. The value of the company has plummeted, and ad revenues and active users have reportedly slipped. On Thursday, NBC News reported paid ads appeared on X alongside “hateful hashtags,” another black eye for a business that has continued to take them. The company pointed NBC News to Musk’s promised new content moderation force in response to the story. Still, two years after many high-profile names made a dramatic exit from the platform, Democratic members of Congress remain prolific tweeters, and reporters pay close attention.

“I still use it, and I still communicate via Twitter,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “But it’s just a much less user-friendly platform than it was when I started when I started using it.”

“It’s [a] tool that I don’t enjoy,” Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, whose missives on the site have routinely made news this year, told NOTUS. “So it’s just the way things are gonna continue.”

The senator added that he doesn’t spend much time on X and wouldn’t recommend anyone else do so either. The vibe is simply resignation.

“I would like to pause and take a minute here and say there is a squandered opportunity here on the part of Threads,” said Molly Jong-Fast, prolific poster and pundit. Like just about everyone NOTUS spoke to, she tried the other sites and was most excited by Threads when it debuted. But the site never worked enough like Twitter to replace it, and Meta doesn’t seem very interested in politics.

X, what’s left of it, is what there is, Jong-Fast said.

“A lot of people are gone, and people don’t use it as much. You do feel like you are producing content for someone who may or may not be a supporter of American democracy,” she said.

“I don’t think you get shamed as much for staying on there anymore,” she added. “Why give it to the right? We built it. Why can’t we stay?”

Characters removed from a sign on the Twitter headquarters building are piled on a street.
The value of the X has plummeted, and ad revenues and active users have reportedly slipped. Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP

Does that make Musk a winner?

“If that’s a win, I don’t want to see what losing looks like,” said Daniel Schuman, executive director at the American Governance Institute, who has spent a lot of time in his career thinking about how social media can make a better democracy. He’s also one of those people in D.C. who is so addicted to Twitter he has an app on his phone to stop him from looking at it too much during work hours.

“We’ve gone from Twitter to Zombie Twitter. Right? It’s still alive. It’s still chasing you,” he said. “You have to pay attention to it, but it’s not what it once was, and there are a lot of other places people are.”

Schuman once was one of those who once urged members of Congress to get on Twitter and who used its open API to create bots aimed at improving access to information, like one that for a time posted every new Congressional Research Service report automatically. The API is now closed off, and services like that are gone. Schuman uses Mastodon and champions it, but he also uses X and says in D.C. that it’s “the first among equals.”

“It’s always worth mentioning that Twitter is relevant to a certain subset of folks who have been on it for a while that are in certain communicating classes,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is there and talking about the same stuff in the same way. There’s a lot of other spaces that we don’t necessarily see.”

But there is no doubt that if it happens in top-level politics, it happens on X, pretty much like it always has. On Wednesday, after a Wall Street Journal story painted an unflattering picture of President Joe Biden, Democrats lined up to defend him. The battlefield was X. Prominent elected officials and White House aides hammered away with tweets. That resulted in stories about the tweets, and tweets about the stories.

X is the place, and everyone knows it.

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HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic is one of the few people who can say they posted a truly important tweet, his being a short video he posted on Jan. 6, 2021, showing a Capitol Police officer confronting pro-Trump crowds storming the halls. He’s still on the platform, posting news and following it. For a while, there was a stigma to that, he said. But it’s mostly gone.

“A lot of people who said they were leaving Twitter are back,” Bobic said. “A lot of people who I follow who were like, ‘Well, this is it for me. I’ll be on Bluesky’ or ‘I’ll be on whatever the hell else,’ are back.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Alex Roarty are reporters at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed to this report.