Class War on the World Wide Web: The Rhetoric Powering DSA’s Twitter Account

By Hannah Zimmerman

The internet became my activist outlet as soon as I started working at Organizing 2.0, a left-wing digital political consulting firm, a little over a year ago. With access to a plethora of verified Facebook and Twitter accounts, I would watch as hashtags and tweets born out of my fingertips reached millions online and sparked hundreds of conversations, all while I sat at a cramped desk in Brooklyn. While working, I paid close attention to which one of my hashtags or tweets would trend and why. I realized this: the difference between a flop and a successful hashtag often came down to the rhetoric of my hashtag and whether or not it was clear what audience it was for. Nevertheless, working with political twitter accounts, I was struck by one radical account that always seemed to have a grasp on what their rhetoric was and who it was for. This was the Democratic Socialists of America’s Twitter account (@demsocialists.) Through the use of confrontational rhetoric, DSA’s Twitter account is able to recruit and mobilize new, current, and prospective members to commit to the “socialist revolution.”

Confrontational rhetoric, as referred to by the man who taught me how to tweet, is the “anarchist’s method of rhetoric.” Characterized by bold claims and brash slogans, confrontational rhetoric aims to challenge societal norms to bring about radical change. Examples could include the Women’s March on Washington in January or the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Further, according to Robert S. Cathcart, an expert on the subject, in his “Movements: Confrontation as Rhetorical Form” (Southern Speech Communication Journal, Vol. 43, 1978, Issue 3), “confrontational rhetoric occurs only in times of special and limited circumstances, such as periods of societal breakdown or when moral underpinnings are called into question.” In a Trump America, morals are constantly being called into question, and it has led us into a period of societal unrest. Further, this period of unrest has led radical organizations, such as DSA, to a spotlight, as frustrated Americans begin to question the entire capitalist system, and look for new answers. This allows for DSA’s anti-capitalist rhetoric to reach a larger audience. As such, DSA’s Twitter account utilized confrontational rhetoric to its full extent. 

This is evident even from the pinned tweet on the profile. When you first pull up the brightly decorated DSA Twitter account (@demsocialists), You can see a tweet pinned to the top with a title reading “What is Democratic Socialism?” The clip is short, a minute and 40 seconds in length, and showcases the organization’s message, as well as how to get involved. The clip begins with a black background and the word “capitalism.” The narrator then explains how capitalism gives us varieties of a product—“a million kinds of apps,” is the example used here. The video then shifts to a tone of more confrontational rhetoric. Denouncing capitalism, the video states how capitalism is an economic system that is based on maximizing profit and extracting resources from workers, in order to put more money in the hands of, as the video refers to them, “private capitalists.” This is done to anger the viewer towards private capitalists. The video continues by explaining how capitalism creates extreme inequality, showing images of police brutality, followed by a projection of a man walking alone while the narrator describes how capitalism alienates people and makes them feel alone. The next image is one which reads a sarcastic “Thanks, Capitalism!” 

At this point in the video, after denouncing capitalism, the narrator now offers an alternative: “Democratic Socialism.” The next part of the video defines that term and how it is “for everyone.” The frowning faces of animated workers from previous clips in the video become smiles as the narrator walks the audience through the benefits of unions, and building a sense of solidarity among minorities and the working class. The video shows people holding hands, quickly transforming to a scene of people united behind a banner, while the narrator asks the viewer to help build a new economy that works for us all. Then the DSA logo comes on screen. We are asked to build this new economic system through DSA. Thus, this rhetoric aims to both attack our current capitalist system and propose a new and shiny utopian alternative appeal to the disenfranchised masses. This is done with the aim of recruiting new members, as many are looking frantically for a solution.   

Scrolling past the pinned tweet, the following tweets do one of two things: highlight the work of a DSA local/affiliate or attack capitalism—both done in an attempt to mobilize DSA’s base while attracting new membership. The highlighting of local work is mostly done through shout-outs and re-tweets. Each DSA local affiliate has its own Twitter account where they release their own anti-capitalist rhetoric, much of which DSA retweets. For instance, the Everett County DSA  chapter twitter (@DSAEverett), posted a meme two weeks ago about how people in their area should join Everett DSA, while also becoming dues-paying members of national DSA  (@demsocialists)  in order to help fight for “Medicare For All,” against “the housing crisis,” and “much more!” The national account, approving of the work and rhetoric of this local account, retweeted this post. This retweet showing national support energized Everett County DSA’s political base, while also showing other chapters and affiliates what their rhetoric should look like to get a retweet. Thus, this incentivizes active DSA members to stay active in the socialist cause. 

The second kind of tweet attacks capitalism. For instance, in a recent tweet, the author of the tweet screenshots a clip from Fox News in which Trump is speaking. Underneath Trump is written: “Trump dedicates golf trophy to the people of Puerto Rico.” The caption from the DSA tweet reads “capitalist benevolence.” This sarcastic tweet serves to mock the president for his capitalist display of dedicating a trophy to a cause, for which a trophy will do no actual good. This confrontational rhetoric (literally, confronting a a capitalist figure) hopes to anger people about the state of capitalism, hoping that acts such as the ones that @demsocialists is showcasing will sway people to socialism, and further, to join DSA. 

Finally, stepping back to just look at the Twitter profile itself, you can see the profile is built on a platform of confrontational rhetoric. The color theme of the profile—red— has been tied to revolutionary movements since the French Revolution. Further, looking at the profile, you see heavy usage of the red rose symbol. The red rose has been an international symbol for socialism since early socialist movements, when it was a mark of identification for many socialists organizing in repressive societies. While subtle, they still serve to confront capitalist colors and imagery while giving interested people a glimpse into what socialist style is like. 

DSA continues on, with a highly successful Twitter account in one hand and batches of confrontational rhetoric, ready to distribute, in the other. Thus, through the use of confrontational rhetoric, DSA’s Twitter account is able to recruit and energize new, current, and perspective members to be active in the fight against capitalism—a fight that will continue for many years to come. 

Hannah Zimmerman is a member of the Silicon Valley branch of the South San Francisco Bay Region chapter of DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.