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What to Make of "Twitchy," Michelle Malkin's Fan for Twitter Flames

BY Nick Judd and Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, May 31 2012

The GOP new media machine tries to chase the spotlight anywhere it goes online, even going so far as to famously jump in on hashtags used by the White House or Obama campaign. It's just not clear what this exactly does for them.

A case in point is Twitchy, a platform launched earlier this year by conservative commentator Michelle Malkin that picks out individual tweets to present on a website along with a few words of commentary. While it ventures into sports and culture news, its primary use seems to be to amplify the conservative hashtag wars, starting some fights and continuing others. Malkin didn't return an email requesting comment.

Liz Mair, a former RNC online communications director, said that Twitchy fits into a relatively longstanding practice of people on the right using Twitter to deflect, subvert or undermine messages coming from people on the left.

The Republican obsession with Twitter is so complete that as soon as the Sunlight Foundation* launched a project, Politwoops, to capture and republish tweets deleted by members of Congress, several GOP lawmakers started tweeting and then deleting messages tying the effort to their own party lines.

It's never clear what long-term gains, if any, conservatives make by starting these little fires. But Twitchy is gaining traction among conservatives as it highlights each one, Mair said.

"Amongst folks that I follow that are conservatives, right-wing libertarians, I'm seeing a lot of people talking about it," Mair said. "It seems to be getting a ton of attention, they find it interesting and useful."

Eli Pariser, co-founder of the progressive leaning viral website Upworthy, said it was hard to tell empirically what the effect of Twitter hashtag campaigns is. A Pew Internet & American Life Project survey released May 31 found that a full eight percent of Internet users get on Twitter at least once a day — but how many of those people have politics coming across their screens at all?

With a lot of members of the news media on Twitter, hashtag campaigns could be a way to get media attention, but "you're still relying on large media institutions to propagate the message," Pariser said. "I'm not sure that if you took the media out of the equation, that Twitter is a very good mechanism for getting ideas in front of a lot of [other people]."

Pariser suggested that a larger proportion of people spend a longer time on Facebook — the primary vector that staffers at his Upworthy use to spread content hosted on its site — and that in general, "people too spend too much time thinking about Twitter, relative to how many people are watching."

Perhaps Twitchy makes more sense in this context: While other conservative message-jamming — like Republican lawmakers' interventions on a very much for-the-insiders platform like Politwoops — is most likely to reach members of the media, Twitchy tries to take that conversation off of Twitter and into the browser.

"I’m a huge fan of Twitchy already," conservative writer and Tea Party supporter Felicia Cravens wrote when the site launched. "It’s easy, it’s savvy, and you don’t have to know anything about Twitter to use it, so it’s perfect for social media beginners."

Disclosure: Personal Democracy Media co-founders Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.