WHAT MUST it be like to be Donald John Trump at this very moment? Imagine, if you can; you have lost an election that you guaranteed you would win, have seen a mob organised in your name storm the very centre of the American democracy of which you are the figurehead, and now, as you sit at your desk, surrounded by empty Big Mac cartons and Diet Coke cans to keep, and you cannot even turn to Twitter to tell the world what you think. Sure, you still have access to the @POTUS account but that’s an official channel and there are rules for that kind of thing.
The relationship between the Trump campaign, and the Trump Presidency, and Twitter has changed the way that politicians and those in government interact with a mass audience. The platform allowed the 45th president to skip the traditional media and talk directly to people in their own pockets.
This, of course, helped the Trump persecution narrative that held the media as the enemy within as one of its key components – asking a Trump supporter about CNN became like asking a Scouser about The Sun. Donald Trump, it’s been said, was the first ever Twitter president and that is, while it may not be good, at least something of note.
But now it’s over. Trump is on his way out, he’s facing an unprecedented second impeachment process, and he’s had the big tool he used to talk straight to his impressive base stripped from him by Twitter. For me, the neutering of this social media revolutionary can be encapsulated in two distinct pairs of images. They tell the story.
The first pair, of Trump hovering like a lion waiting to take down a gazelle behind Hillary Clinton, who’s husband murdered a mentally disabled black man just to show he was tough on crime as governor of Arkansas – and of the tycoon riding down the escalator at Trump tower, show what made him so appealing to so many. He was flash, brash, direct, ruthless, and had an edge that many felt was refreshing.
However, compare them to the other two images I have in mind; that of Trump sitting at that hilariously tiny desk and of Trump’s surrogate, and literal definition of someone fallen from grace, Rudi Giuliani standing in front of Four Seasons Landscaping in Philly as news broke that he, along with the whole show, was on his way out.
These images are akin to the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes who declares that His Imperial Majesty is not wearing any clothes. In this sense, Donald Trump is very, very naked indeed… and it’s cold in there.
In a sense the curtain has been coming down, especially with these last two images. It felt like the end of a chapter or, given Trump’s well-known dislike of reading, the end of an episode. However, and correct me if I’m wrong here, nothing felt quite as final for President Trump as his ban from Twitter, right? And, it is perhaps this finality that makes me feel just a little bit uneasy about it.
On one hand, Trump’s Twitter content was good but in a bad way. We would watch him announce policy, hire people, use commas and capital letters in a way that would make any editor reach for the bottle under their desk, and, while we would enjoy it, it was not good for us. It was a little like his fondness for KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and all the others; sure it’s delicious but enough of it can do some serious damage.
Twitter is now so big that there does, unavoidably, need to be some way of streaming out the more extreme content. While I’m not massively sure that banning Milo Yiannopolus, Katie Hopkins, Alex Jones, and other right-wing figures was entirely the right thing to do, there were absolutely upsides to them not having access to the kind of audiences that Twitter provides. One would only hope that far-left accounts are facing the same level of threat but it seems like the radical right is the main target for the moment.
There is, therefore, something undeniably positive about the President’s reckless and thoughtless tweets not being pumped into the phones of millions of people every day at the moment. It has had a calming effect on the digital chatter and Twitter specifically feels a little more chilled-out without his huge shadow looming over it.
There’s still something quite gross about a social media company exercising that level of influence and control over a democratically elected person, never mind the leader of the free world, right?
It is troubling that Jack Dorsey and his crew can effectively shut off one of the main pipelines that the president, like him or not, uses to communicate. This is not a content judgement on what Trump tweets, much of which is as confusing as it is distressing, but rather a comment on the relationship between big tech companies and politicians.
Essentially, it has become evidently clear that Twitter, or Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube, or whoever, can not only strip politicians of the use of their platforms at their discretion but can do so to the occupier of the most powerful, important, and prestigious political office in the world – and that is surely concerning?
I am not quite willing to pull out the free speech defence in this context. Twitter, like a Christian cake maker, for example, is a private business and is perfectly entitled to deny service for whatever reason it sees fit – even when it does so to a famous Pennsylvania Avenue resident.
There is, however, a question of the impact of the level of influence that organisations like Twitter, or Amazon (which banned Parler – very much the right-wing supermarket own-brand version of Twitter, from its platform) have on how information reaches the public. The same people who are concerned about media ownership, who vilify Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch, should be, at least in principle, a little concerned about the control that the big tech firms have over the communication abilities of the powerful. Even if it’s just about being consistent or out of fear that a firebrand they agree with might be next.
Perhaps the broader point – and the one that runs contrary to how modern political and cultural discourse works – is that it’s possible to be conflicted on an issue and not, necessarily, be wrong. It is entirely right to claim that Twitter, and the online space, will be nicer, more civil, and less unpleasant without Donald J. Trump’s influence on it. However, it is also true to say that there is something extremely troubling and worrying about the reach of big tech companies and the control they have over what can and cannot be said in the nearest thing we currently have to a public square.
It is worth remembering that, despite everything our modern culture tells you, you do not always have to pick a team, you don’t have to have one opinion or another, you can declare a pox on all houses in the street, you can walk out of the political shop without having bought anything, and you can, and should, hold nuanced, detailed opinions that come with exceptions, sub-clauses, and caveats to them.
It’s called thinking for yourself and comes highly recommended.