As Americans struggle with a pandemic that’s put millions out of work and killed more than 100,000 of us so far, President Donald Trump has chosen to launch a war against a social-media company. Of course, we already know who’ll lose, and it is us.
Trump and Twitter’s fates have long been intertwined: he relied on it for a direct connection between his mind and the media, and in the process elevated the platform to the center of our public discourse. Twitter could have called out his lies and bullying years ago, but the company chose to embrace the benefit and ignore the harm — until this week.
Now that Twitter’s had the audacity to attach fact-check labels to some of his tweets, and to flag others as “glorifying violence”, Trump’s natural response is to bully once more. This time he’s using the power of the presidency to issue an executive order implicitly threatening to punish social-media companies if they moderate content. A win for Trump’s ego if not for civil discourse, and likely an action that will lead to “more billable hours for white-shoe law firms with First Amendment practices” and not much else.
But the real loser is America and the world, because of what we’re NOT talking about while we discuss Trump’s squabbles with a tech company. His administration guts environmental regulations that protect our health and safety and the long-term survival of the ecosystems we depend on for drinkable water and breathable air. His appointees make a mockery of ethics rules designed to keep public servants from drinking from the public trough. His (ethically challenged) Secretary of State stokes a cold war with China and a potential hot one with Iran. Meanwhile, we’re distracted by 280-character missives straight from the thumbs of a sociopath who made it to the White House much to his own surprise.
I’m no fan of Twitter’s overall response to disinformation campaigns on its platform, which feels like an abdication of responsibility hiding behind a banner of free speech. But as Susan Glasser noted today, arguing over whether Twitter should ban the President of the United States is a distraction from the substance of his actions, since “[i]t can be easier to yell at one another about Twitter’s terms of service than about Trump’s tweets.”
And those tweets will get worse. Susan Glasser again:
Trailing in the polls and desperate to change the subject from the coronavirus, mid-pandemic Trump has a Twitter feed that is meaner, angrier, and more partisan than ever before, as he amplifies conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and media enemies such as Scarborough while seeking to exacerbate divisions in an already divided country.
Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and others have rightly expressed their disgust with Trump’s incitement of violence against our own citizens, but they and plenty of others have been expressing disgust about his tweets for years — and it hasn’t changed a thing. Perhaps Twitter will kick him off the platform as soon as he’s out of office, but in the meantime, he can still use it to divide, distract and horrify. Let’s just hope it doesn’t leave us too exhausted to crush him and his movement at the polls in November.
For a glimpse of what social media MIGHT have become, check out an interview with an early Twitter techie published today in Slate. The conversation explores how a radical free-speech mentality — one with no sense of the consequences words can have — took hold at Twitter in a way that it hasn’t in most real-world communities. What could have been:
I really strongly believe that the culture of the community is set by its acceptable parameters. So if you have a community where abusive behavior is acceptable, then people will go there to abuse other people. And if you moderate and you actually have some community standards, then they won’t. I think that’s true in all parts of life, and because Twitter is such an important public space, it would be nice if we had stronger community standards that reflect the sort of society that we actually want to live in — not just some sort of free-but-harmful-speech protecting space.
Mindful of others? An idea totally alien to Donald Trump, and apparently to tech titans too. More on that soon.
Original photo: Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona by Gage Skidmore