And so, on Friday night, the most prolific Twitter account of all US Presidents, living or dead, (presumably) was permanently shut down.
Donald J Trump, outgoing President of the United States, was no longer allowed to tweet from both his personal Twitter account nor the official POTUS account. But that’s not all – Instagram, Snapchat and Twitch joined suit, Facebook had already suspended his account until after Joe Biden’s inauguration, and Parler, the “free speech” app, was removed from Apple and Google’s app stores.
Trump’s endless Twitter tirades were, at long last, silent.
“Hurrah!”, you might think. “For too long have we been forced to listen to incoherent ramblings of a Grade-A nutsack. Now, finally, his nonsense brought to an end. Hurray to the end of stupidity!”
And yes, there are a few obvious upsides. Since he incited mob violence at the Capitol building last week, Trump showed next to no contrition on Twitter, using it instead to praise his followers and tell them “We love you.” Now that he has lost access to his nearly 90m followers, it will be far harder for him to incite disruption or even more violence during the final days of his tenure.
This is, quite obviously, a good thing.
But there is far more to this story than simply “tangerine madman gets silenced.” There has been a debate for quite some time about exactly how Twitter and Facebook should be classified, regulated, and kept in check. There is a profoundly grey area between platform and publisher that Facebook and Twitter have been deliberately muddying in the name of profit for quite some time.
A platform takes no responsibility for the content posted on it, as it is the user’s responsibility to ensure that it is within the platform’s community guidelines. A publisher, on the other hand, has to take responsibility itself for the content posted upon it due to regulation, such as around hate speech.
Twitter and Facebook have both deemed themselves to be platforms. As such, Trump’s huge following and demand for attention meant serious money for the two tech colossi through advertising revenue. While they might not have liked what he said, it meant megabucks for them, so they let him crack on, no questions asked.
Trump’s actions over the course of the 2020 election campaign and its aftermath, however, took things to a new level. He has compacted the grey area into a more defined line – not least because whatever line now exists, Trump not only crossed it, but then took a dump on it for good measure then blamed it on Antifa.
An uneasy truce had been balanced between politics and social media for the last few years. We have seen incredibly-rapid changes in the relationship between the people and politics, and social media has been the primary catalyst for it. However, we are now starting to understand the power of social media, and the companies who wield it.
This may well be the end of the first age of digital democracy. It’s worth exploring where we go from here.
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE TWEET…
It’s very easy to be critical of social media. God knows I have. Trolls. Racists. Lunatic fringe parties getting undue attention. It’s easy to write the whole thing off as a colossal shitshow that should just be shut down.
But to do so would be to forget some of the positive things that social media has done. While it’s easy to look at Trump’s “patriots” going postal in Washington and think, “This wouldn’t have happened without Twitter,” nor would the Black Lives Matter movement. Nor would the #MeToo movement. Or Captain Sir Tom Moore’s NHS fundraiser. The list goes on.
Social media’s deepest weakness is also its greatest strength – it gives a voice to everyone. And, in a political sense, this cannot be seen as anything other than a good thing.
Democracy only works when every person in a country can express their opinion through voting. By extension, this requires freedom of thought and freedom of speech to engage with opinions constructively. I profoundly disagree with the idea of privatising the NHS, for example, yet there are compelling arguments to be made in favour of it, such as quality of care or better resource management (or, at least, hypothetically). These arguments deserve just as much discussion as my own.
But here is where we start to see the issues. The democratic ideal of creating policy through scrutiny, debate and compromise only works when we are able to change our minds, or at least see the good in opposing arguments. Unfortunately, we currently seem to live in a world where people are more willing to hunker down with their own side than even contemplate an opponent’s point of view, even if their team has such extreme factions that they might even be overtly racist (see antisemitic Corbynistas on the far left, anti-Islamic or anti-BLM Trumpers on the far right).
How have we got here? A million different reasons. A vast expanse in the wealth gap between rich and poor. A deliberately divisive and misleading media. Geolocational viewpoints that are entirely at odds with one another (i.e. liberal, Labour-voting major cities versus more conservative rural constituencies). A First-Past-The-Post voting system that disenfranchises millions of people at every election. There’s a myriad of explanations as to why the country feels so divided – there is a pervasive underlying narrative of “Us” vs “Them.”
Social media has merely exacerbated the pre-existing malaise that was afflicting us. Hard right and hard left fringes have always existed, but now they have a means of finding other, like-minded people, rather than being confined to the backs of pubs or weird online message boards.
However, whether you like it or not, the fact that they exist is a good thing.
Why? Because freedom of speech and freedom of thought are vital to the workings of democracy. Opposing viewpoints are needed to keep the mainstream ones in check. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says in his frankly incredible video below, our democracy is like a sword – the more you temper it, the stronger it becomes.
Just watch. Seriously, just watch. Sword analogy at 5.12.
We need to have opposing viewpoints that challenge our own to ensure that our own views remain appropriate, considered and relevant. If we become lazy and fail to strengthen our own arguments, other, more insidious ones can take hold.
But in order for this to happen, the opposing views must be heard. Really, really listened to, and treated with respect, no matter how daft or insulting they are. You don’t have to respect the arguments themselves, but the person’s right to make them. Because the only way to defeat them is to have a better argument and to change the minds of those championing them.
If you ignore the arguments of someone who disagrees with you, those arguments will simply fester like a bad wound, getting more and more painful until finally – POP – the boil bursts, and it’s too late. Frustrated at not being taken seriously, opponents will go to further and further lengths to be heard. This includes disinformation and conspiracy theories like QAnon – there isn’t a morsel of reality in anything they say, but to those who have been ignored, they welcome them to the fold like long-lost family.
That is where we are with Trump. That is where we are with Brexit. That is where we are as a society. Fringe voices are summarily dismissed out-of-hand, so they simply double-down until they sound insane, but are still more representative to those that follow them than the beliefs of the status quo.
Done right, social media gives voice to those who are owed it. But those of us in the status quo are still refusing to listen.
So what does Trump’s suspension mean?
FREEDOM OF IMPEACH
For all that I’ve just said, there was little else that Twitter or Facebook could do about Trump other than suspend him. Five people are dead due to the events that unfolded at his command. He’s reportedly unstable, at odds with reality, and liable to do something profoundly dangerous (or, at least, profoundly stupid).
A man with that much power should not have a platform for inciting violence or for damaging democracy.
It’s also understandable that Trump and his supporters are apoplectic about it. Along with the removal of Parler, they feel as though their freedom of speech is being curtailed.
And they have a point, too. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with something Donald Trump Junior posted, but:
Leave it to Trump JuJu to make a relatively profound point but still tailend it with something eye-wateringly stupid. “Mao would be proud.” Do sod off.
The decision to suspend Trump was made by Twitter itself and its CEO Jack Dorsey. At its core, it’s an editorial decision. Yes, an editorial decision to prevent loss of human life, attacks on democracy and so on, but still an editorial one.
So why aren’t other hate-speech spouters being suspended? Why is it one rule for Trump and not for others?
Put simply – because there is no regulation.
Dorsey’s Twitter and bizarro-replicant android Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook have long argued that they are merely platforms. They are private tech companies that have their own policies for content, which means that they cannot be treated in the same way as traditional media such as TV or newspaper journalism.
But, now that Trump has crossed the Rubicon, it’s clear that that’s not the case. The second they silenced him, they demonstrated the influence that they wield.
These two companies have more power, financially and ideologically, than the world’s great superpowers. And yet they are not elected, have no accountability to the people, and have so far even managed to evade regulation.
This is the crux of the matter, and what happens next. Social media, in the current, polarised political climate, must be regulated.
Yes, we must learn to listen. We, as a society, have a responsibility for our own democracy that doesn’t begin and end on Twitter. In fact, for all the power that it wields with influencing government decisions and news headlines, only around 22% of US and UK citizens use it. Finding an end to polarised politics doesn’t just lie with sorting out social media.
But the fact of the matter is that it makes the problem so much worse.
So, what to do?
Over the course of the US Presidential Election, Twitter took the first steps. By adding fact-checking addendums to Trump and his cohort’s tweets, they showed some signs of understanding how dangerous the swirling cauldron of disinformation has become.
Just for balance, here’s my friend Trump Jr again demonstrating the Twitter notice:
And it’s here that I believe the tides will turn. Once factual accuracy becomes a mainstay of social media, and once the extreme fringes have fewer places to turn, the more that they will engage with reality. It’s those defending the status quo who have to listen more, but their opponents will be armed with better arguments if they aren’t derived from some spiralling, online bollocks about Barack Obama being King of the Paedos.
Social media companies must start taking responsibility for the content that’s published on their sites. And, indeed, so should traditional media, too. I am desperately keen to emphasise that I do not remotely believe in curtailing free speech and I believe more than most that arguments from all fringes should be heard. But those that are based on lies or falsehoods should be flagged as such.
To all those who complain about being “silenced”, I would give a platform. But every time the platform is given, they must be asked, “Where is your evidence?” This question must be posed every time they speak.
Every. Single. Time.
Because if we can get to a point where political discourse is about interpretation of facts again, where the debate is held sanely and respectfully, and we can learn to trust those we disagree with to act in good faith, we can start to claw our democracy back from the brink.
Because right now, make no mistake – both for our friends across the pond and for us right here at home, democracy is looking shakier than ever before.