Trump and Twitter: a hollow victory

The suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter account has made headlines across the world. But while on balance we should be glad about Donald Trump’s sudden absence from Twitter, I would urge caution about celebrating too much. The suspension raises a number of issues that go to the heart of what has happened to political conversation in preceding years.

One of the inevitable, if predictable, debates resulting from Trump’s removal is that over freedom of speech. Conservative reactionaries have inevitably cast this suspension as a kind of totalitarian repression of Trump’s freedom of expression in the form of a “woke purge” perpetrated by “big tech” controlled by “liberal elites”. Unquestionably a victim, and apparently entitled automatically to the private infrastructures of US surveillance capitalism by virtue of the First Amendment, Trump has been silenced, goes the argument.

Undoubtedly, Trump’s ability to communicate to broad sections of the public has been limited by this suspension. But Donald Trump and his supporters are anything but victims, and this disingenuous use of the language of “freedom of speech” is only a clever way of pushing right-wing talking points and claiming victimhood when prevented from doing so. As the philosopher Jason Stanley has argued, concerns about the curtailment of rational debate are overblown when those conversations have lost all semblance of reason.

In this case, the free speech debate is mostly a red herring. Far more instructive is perhaps to examine in hindsight the uneasy marriage of Twitter with Donald Trump to begin with. There have been calls for Trump’s account to be limited or removed for years, and the account was twice compromised by people unhappy with its presence there: once taken offline by a disgruntled Twitter employee in 2017, and then hacked in 2020 by a Dutch researcher who correctly guessed the password — ‘maga2020!’. So what kept Trump’s account active for so long?

The answer has more to do with Twitter and other social media platforms’ business models, which are to a certain extent dependent on such content and on being left alone by government. Besides an unwillingness to be seen to remove any account on the basis of political ideology alone, the fact is that digital platforms, and especially Twitter, needed Trump there, generating controversy and bringing attention to their platform, particularly when Twitter’s mixed fortunes in the last few years are considered. Their business involves cultivating, and then commodifying, as much targeted human attention as possible. It can’t be said often enough: while we believe we are being provided with a useful, free service for public conversation, our attention is a valuable commodity targeted with data and sold to the highest bidder.

Trump, as one of the platform’s most followed accounts, and surely one of its most controversial, was in commercial terms a huge asset to Twitter’s enduring relevance as a platform and thus to its shareholders. This is not for one moment to say that Twitter was justified in not removing Trump sooner. Rather, it points to the dysfunction of the business model itself — don’t be surprised when one of the most predatory and exploitative forms of capitalism isn’t quick to voluntarily destroy valuable assets. If we don’t like this logic, we need to question our tolerance for the entire business model.

Not only are digital platforms’ business models ultimately unworkable, but the means we have for regulating them are utterly broken, too, because they are political, rather than civic. Despite having ample grounds to do so, including constant disinformation and glorification of violence on previous occasions, Twitter and other digital platforms have been terrified of what Trump might do to their bottom line in retaliation if they limited him further. Make no mistake, it is no accident this suspension has come with less than two weeks to run on Trump’s presidency, and just days after it was confirmed that Democrats would finally control the senate. It was only because Trump was a disgraced, white-supremacist, confirmed single-term president, that he could have his account suspended.

Conversely, the fact that when this happened he was still the president of the United States — supposedly the most powerful individual on the planet — shows what a huge amount of power a single company following this business model can have over public debate, when they want to. Without much more than a few clicks and the issue of a public statement, the bounds of acceptable political discourse have been altered by a company that is meaningfully accountable to very few, and this should concern us. Twitter and Facebook have never been benign, neutral platforms that exist for the public good.

I would be heartened if I felt that the workers within Twitter who had organised an open letter to managers at the company this week had really convinced their bosses that profiting from or appeasing fascism was not an ethical business practice. The truth however is that similar such internal struggles in the past have made little difference to the decisions of management at these companies. When for example Facebook’s employees have mutinied in the past against management, or drawn attention to serious ethical problems within the platform, they have often been ignored or fired. Same at Google. The same is likely true at Twitter. The overwhelming evidence is that in this case, executives have simply made a cynical political calculation to appease incoming Democrats and attempt to appear to be on the right side of history. After all, mainstream capitalism needs the menace of the far-right so as to provide cover for its own dysfunction and an air of legitimacy.

The remaining question is what effects this suspension is likely to have. On the one hand, it sets a powerful new precedent, and the evidence is that deplatforming on social media is effective in reducing hate. At the same time however, it is common to overstate the influence of social media. Trump’s ascendancy had a lot more to do with the oxygen provided by TV news, and particularly the support of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. There is little to suggest that they have learned the lessons of providing attention to divisive or reactionary figures, and Trump can and likely will build some kind of media outlet after his time in office to exploit his public profile. This is no less likely as a result of this suspension.

Trump may be leaving office imminently and now be absent from Twitter, but in the short term he is not gone from our lives. The real benefit of his departure from both public office and Twitter will be more apparent in the longer term.

Politics, culture, communications, law & society. Author, “After the Fact?” and “Filling the Void” Legally trained. Former coder. More at: www.mjgw.net/?ref=md