Flicker Fusion

Power and the web

Posted on .

For instigating an insurrection against the country he swore an oath to serve, Donald Trump has finally been unceremoniously dumped by every major tech platform. Far from a profile in courage, the de-platforming of Trump and his various supplicants has come far too late; the fact that Trump has been largely silent since then is some evidence the ban works and should have been put into place years ago.1

There are still nine days until Joe Biden is inaugurated, and a vain moron continues to nominally command the most powerful military in history, so I’m wary of getting too far ahead of myself. But ever since Trump started losing access to his various online megaphones, I’ve been asking what happens next.

Most obviously, without Trump leaping across various red lines on a daily basis, the platforms can return to their vague missions of connecting every living person on earth, while cynically acting as if there are no consequences to that. If you are Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, or even someone who works for them, it’s got to be a relief knowing that Trump won’t be there to shine a ten-million candlepower light on a historic failure to take responsibility for your work.

I expect the platforms, under renewed scrutiny and facing a very different political climate, to continue to make small changes that only further complicate their arbitrary and capriciously enforced rules.

A perhaps more interesting question is what does Biden do next (or, for that matter, what do we). One simple change would be for the most powerful man in the world to give up some of the power that’s imbued in social media — to walk away from the bulliest of pulpits.

We already know Biden’s going to bring a certain normalcy, a boringness, back to the office and therefore our lives. I’m having a hard time imagining what life will be like when I can go entire days, possibly weeks, without having to know what the president said that day. Imagine if @joebiden or @potus becomes one of those automated accounts that blurts out rote headlines with a link back to an official government website. A python script and an RSS feed would be enough, a sort of inversion of the press secretary bot that mocked Trump’s tweeting.

Obviously, social media is a direct conduit to the very people politicians are desperate to connect with, even when they are earnestly working in the interest of their constituents. So much of the power is the ability to disintermediate; the last four years have shown just how awful that can be. And clearly, any modern campaign needs to meet people where they are, so there’d be no better way for Biden to show the time of Trumpian perpetual campaigning is over than to never tweet.

The internet was originally built by the government and public and private researchers during a time when trust in institutions was much higher, probably the highest in American history. It was designed to be distributed, at least in part to withstand a first-strike attack. Ironically, the massive privatization and consolidation that have happened over the past decade have made the internet more susceptible than ever, only now the network is where the attacks begin.

As part of his mission to help restore some degree of trust in the government, Biden can lead by example. Walk away from the tweet button. Take that power away from the small number of Silicon Valley executives who’ve proven time and time and time again they have no interest in taking responsibility for their creation.

  1. My own feeling on what the platforms, especially Twitter, should have done is simple, perhaps deceptively: enforce the rules.

    I don’t even know that a full permaban would have been necessary at any point in the five years since he started spewing racist conspiracy theories and whipping up fascistic crowds; they could have simply cut off his access every time he tweeted out a blatant policy violation and only returned access once he deleted the offending tweet.

    The collective thinking on this feels overcomplicated, with all sorts of self-justification and hand wringing over the fact he’s a public figure and world leader. All of that complexity seems driven in large part by the ever-shifting rules and excuses being handed down by the leaders of Twitter and Facebook. If they had simply, from the beginning, treated @realDonaldTrump as merely a user who agreed to the same terms of service as millions of others, they may have actually earned some of the respect they’re now craving. ↩︎