Twitter doggerel, we’re often told, comes in two flavors: crude and spiteful. But that’s not quite fair. There’s also vapid.
So it seems almost unthinkable that one Twitter nanogenre is showing signs of elegance. Such a thing violates house style.
I’m talking about subtweets. These are the regal epigrams that stand alone, can seem like platitudes, and yet supply arch but indirect commentary on a turn of events without naming or tagging the players. If a report came out that someone notorious, let’s call him John Barron, had been caught in lies, you might not tag Mr. Barron but instead tweet “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” That would show him.
Originally, because a tweet about another person only shows up in their timeline if it includes their handle, subtweeting was done expressly to keep a tweet out of a target’s timeline, as a way to slag them off behind their back. Of course, people have always said “I think someone is eating more than her share” when you’re scarfing pesto at the table, but leave it to Twitter to give a name to the practice of not naming your mark. And, as the uses of subtweeting become more elliptical, the debased Twitter art might be evolving once again—if not beyond the waspishness and trivia that’s in the platform’s DNA, at least to more refined forms of waspishness and trivia.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico. Before coming to WIRED she was a staff writer at the New York Times—first a TV critic, then a magazine columnist, and then an opinion writer. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree and PhD in English from Harvard. In 1979 she stumbled onto the internet, when it was the back office of weird clerics, and she’s been in the thunderdome ever since.
“The moral high ground is a little slippery when your lord and savior can’t stop paying off pornstars,” tweeted the novelist Molly Jong-Fast recently, seeming to slight supporters for their hammed-up indignation over jokes about Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (It’s a sorry task, explaining a subtweet; apologies to @MollyJongFast.)
If you imagine that a barbed tweet without a tag can’t break the skin, think again. Jong-Fast, whose calling increasingly seems to be magisterially subtweeting the Trump syndicate, has been blocked by everyone she so much as gestures at. Sebastian Gorka, Omarosa Manigault-Newman, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and, of course, President Donald Trump: She’s Twitter-dead to them. By getting these four Trumps, Jong-Fast has achieved what Tara Dublin, a comedian and another skilled subtweetrix, named “the Block Quadfecta.”
Let’s say you’ve been lying and someone you know tweets the “tangled webs” line. You may suspect you’re being subtweeted, but that’s the nefarious thing: You can only suspect it. The tweeter might say she just happened to be musing on Sir Walter Scott’s great insights into deceit. Subtweets are insidious. Where trolls wear their snickering misdemeanors on their sleeve, a subtweeter has deniability.
On April 16, the day the carnival barker Sean Hannity was revealed as a client of Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, most of political Twitter coursed with links to the revelations. But Preet Bharara, the ace podcaster and onetime US attorney for the Southern District of New York (fired by Trump), didn’t mention Hannity or Cohen at all.
“God bless our independent judiciary,” he tweeted instead.
Out of … nowhere. Bharara just happened to be musing on America’s blessed separation of powers. Nearly 50,000 others on Twitter—no doubt absolutely indifferent to the curious case of Michael Cohen—liked Bharara’s five-word, apolitical reflection.
If trolling is the province of the executive branch, subtweeting is perfect for the above-the-fray, autonomous men and women of the judiciary. US attorneys, former FBI directors, legal analysts: It makes sense they’d prefer the discretion of subtweeting to the guttersnake ad hominem stuff. Maybe the imperiousness of subtweeting also appeals to jurists.
They’re certainly **** good at it. Before he laid his worldview on the line with A Higher Loyalty, former FBI director James Comey habitually subtweeted political events on Twitter and Instagram. (Subtweeting is not stuck on Twitter, though that’s where the form is most dramatically finding itself.)
As Donald Trump mercilessly dragged Comey and the FBI last year, Comey kept his mouth shut on social media. But last December, when the Justice Department indicted Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, Comey put up a picture on Instagram of whitewater rapids, with a sweet Pulp Fiction or biblical caption: “‘But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ Amos 5:24.”
It’s like that play, The Mouse-Trap, that Hamlet stages to dramatize his uncle’s treachery. The play doesn’t even once @-Claudius, it just shows an actor pouring poison into another actor’s ear. But the shoe evidently fits. Claudius goes nuts and blocks Hamlet by calling for the house lights. #blockedbyClaudius (Sidebar: “If you ever discover that what you’re seeing is a play within a play, just slow down, take a deep breath, and hold on for the ride of your life,” Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts.)
You can even subtweet in person. Emmanuel Macron is a masterful eyeball-to-eyeball subtweeteur. His speech before both houses of Congress and Trump’s entire cabinet last week warned against all the things Trump campaigned on: ignorance, inequality, and nationalism. As Macron put it, “I believe that against ignorance we have education. Against inequalities, development. Against cynicism, trust and good faith. Against fanaticism, culture. Against disease, medicine. Against the threats on the planet, science.”
Macron managed to say all this without explicitly tagging Trump. He also made it seem as though his reflections—though of course based on volumes of evidence—also followed quite naturally from his close encounters with chummy Trump. It was sly. Maybe this subtweeting a la français could work, with Macron acting as though he was only articulating values he knew were already shared by Trump rather than delivering what the media roundly called a “rebuke” to him.
“Let us work together in order to make our planet great again,” Macron said, which made some Democrats laugh. Good subtweet! He had appropriated the battle cry of the treacherous nationalists in the name of true “conservation,” which they viciously oppose—the restoration of the planet to health.
Democrats cheered. Globalism was back! What an elegant takedown. How subtle, how disciplined, what finesse.
And yet. Finesse ce n’est pas pour toute le monde. “Against fanaticism, culture”? How could Trump have heard a rebuke in that fancily inverted sentence structure, and anyway what’s a rebuke? A person can’t be rebuked by a subtweet if they can’t understand it. Surely Trump and his supporters heard “Make … great again” and simply figured Macron was playing their tune.
And that’s the problem with subtweets. They can sometimes be too quiet, too sophisticated. On the other hand, after he left the US, Macron started tweeting in French, and then Russian. He was “en ligne avec Vladimir Poutine,” he reported. The two leaders had been speaking about Iran, nukes, and Syria. Putin himself—from @PutinRF_Eng—said they had “discussed the situation in Syria after the missile strikes by the United States and its allies.”
Elsewhere on Twitter, Donald Trump was bellowing about a witch hunt. Geopolitics went on subtweeting without him.