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Twitter silences a dangerous president

Twitter has permanently suspended President Trump’s account, and it honestly comes as a relief. We’re going to need to have a longer conversation, soon, about what it means that a giant corporation can effectively silence the president of the United States if it chooses. But under the circumstances — with five people having died this week at the U.S. Capitol due to the president’s encouragement of insurrectionists, and with the prospect of more violence to come — banning Trump is the best result.

I remember the first time I encountered Trump’s Twitter account, sometime in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. At first, I thought it was a parody — somebody making up exaggerated versions of what the guy from The Apprentice might say if he would deign to waste his time on social media. After that came a series of realizations, starting a few minutes after I discovered the account and continuing over the months and years.

That the account was real, not a parody.

That not only was it real, but that Trump was absolutely serious about the nutty stuff — not just the birtherism, but even the everyday musings — that he was saying.

That not only was he serious, but that many followers of the account took him seriously.

That the stuff he was saying, on Twitter and in real life, was actually kind of dangerous.

My arc of realizations, you’ll probably note, also follows the arc of how we in the media treated Trump the man and presidential candidate. Many of us initially saw his candidacy as a joke — Jon Stewart on The Daily Show was positively gleeful about Trump’s presidential announcement in 2015 — but good for clicks and ratings. Only dimly did many of us realize that he was a clown, yes, but also that he was and is serious, a threat to American democracy.

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Twitter came to the same conclusion, after years of protests by the president’s critics and weeks of labeling his election fraud tweets as misinformation. The company didn’t ban Trump because it didn’t like his politics; there are lots of jerks on the platform, still, who haven’t been banned and won’t be. The action came because Twitter — almost certainly with the blessing of founder Jack Dorsey — decided Trump was still a threat to incite violence between now and Inauguration Day.

Two tweets that Trump posted on Friday “are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on Jan. 6, 2021,” the company said in a statement, “and that there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so.”

You can argue whether that was a correct assessment — one of Trump’s tweets on Friday was a statement that he wouldn’t attend Joe Biden’s inauguration, the other promising to be a “GIANT VOICE” for his voters going forward — but Trump had already inspired one ugly day in Washington D.C., in part by using his social media voice. Why take the chance of a repeat?

One senses that Trump will be as pained and angered by losing his Twitter account as he is by leaving the White House. He correctly saw that the platform gave him a way to circumvent the usual gatekeepers, to talk without fear of filters or contradiction to that part of the public which ate up everything he could post, no matter how ridiculous or malicious. And then the gatekeepers would amplify it anyway.

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“If I put out a news release, nobody’s even going to see it,” he said in 2019, adding: “[On Twitter] as soon as it goes out, it goes on television, it goes on Facebook, it goes all over the place and it’s instant — it really is, to me it’s a modern way to communicate.”

If you were to contemplate the “modern way” of communicating simply through the lens of how Trump used it over the years, you have to conclude social media is a bust. Far from bringing us together, sites like Twitter and Facebook have made the process of polarization more efficient, places where lies and insults spread faster than the truth — and that make us feel bad. There is no positive equivalent to the term “doomscrolling” after all.

The final days of Trump’s presidency have seen those companies reconsider — publicly, at least — how they approach their responsibilities to the public. Facebook earlier suspended Trump until at least the inauguration and has fiddled with its algorithm to tamp down misinformation. Google banned Parler, a right-wing version of Twitter, from the Google Play Store because of threats of election-related violence. Apple threatened to do the same on the App Store. YouTube booted Steve Bannon for posting videos claiming the election was stolen. It is difficult to argue with any of these individual decisions — but we shouldn’t get too comfortable with them, either. There are other sites where Trump can and will post his screeds, but that just means the process of siloing continues apace. The president’s followers won’t stop getting misinformation, they’ll just get the misinformation somewhere else.

Then again, five people died this week for Trump’s lies. American democracy took a body blow. Maybe all of that would have happened without social media — but it is hard right now to imagine how. So for the moment, at least, let’s just enjoy the silence.

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