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The rise of the printed tweet in American politics

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What it means when a tweet moves from the internet into meat space

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At the beginning of January, during a Senate discussion about the future of Obamacare, Bernie Sanders brought a visual aid to the floor. It wasn’t a pie chart or health insurance statistics. It was a tweet.

In the missive from May 2015, Donald Trump announced that under his presidency, there would be no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Appealing to other Senators, Sanders read the tweet aloud as a direct quote from Trump like a lawyer presenting evidence. “[Trump] didn’t say it once in the middle of the night,” Sanders said. “He didn’t say it in an interview. This was a central part of his campaign.”

Sanders argued that when it comes to Trump, who uses Twitter like a press room, every tweet can be taken as an official political statement. But this idea isn’t limited to the president of the United States. What is said on social media extends into and has an impact on the real world. The printed tweet — silly as it looks — is a useful reminder of that.

At the Women’s March last month, in Washington, DC and around the world, printed tweets bobbed up and down march routes alongside thousands of other marker-scrawled protest signs. And last week, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer refuted a tweet from Obama’s national security advisor in a press conference. And, as hard proof of the tweet’s existence, there the tweet was, clutched in Spicer’s fist, printed onto a 9 x 11-inch piece of paper.

You could argue that the act of printing out a social media post feels like a step backwards; isn’t there a reason these things live online and not in a scrapbook? Seeing a tweet in the wild for the first time is like seeing someone act out a diary entry for a public audience: disorienting and maybe even a little embarrassing. We’re so used to seeing tweets in a digital context that slapping them on paper seems dated.

But there is utility in turning a tweet from a digital artifact into a physical one, and it has surfaced most obviously in the political world.

For one thing, tweets are often direct quotes. (Even if you recognize that many politicians have social media teams to man their Twitter accounts, implicit in each tweet is some kind of approval by the person whose name is attached to it.) The only mediator is the platform — no media intermediary necessary. And because each tweet is timestamped, and there’s no way for the tweeter to edit (other than deleting), a tweet is a tiny capsule of its creator’s stance at a particular moment.

Tweets are more casual and more accessible than, say, a voting record or a 45-page PDF of a bill. Even the people who don’t use Twitter (and that’s most people) know what a tweet looks like, and the connotations that come with that design: a concise missive straight from the source.

A tweet is also digestible, a bite-sized version of someone’s beliefs and ideologies from the present and the past. At protests of Trump’s recent Muslim ban this past weekend in New York City, one common poster was a print-out of a 2015 tweet from Vice President Mike Pence, which seemed to contradict the president’s executive order.

Because of Twitter’s feed design, tweets often come across as ephemeral: released and quickly buried by thousands of other messages. Printing a tweet fishes the quote from the Twitter stream, and mounts it on paper. The process gives the tweet a permanence it might not have had otherwise.

Our online behavior and our offline identities aren’t as separated as we once thought. For both citizens and politicians, printing out tweets is a way of holding those in power accountable for what they say — even when it’s 140-characters or less.