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With Donald Trump No Longer the Heart of Online Discourse, There's Room for a Powerful Shift

Donald Trump was made from TV and thus the ideal avatar for an internet populace that feeds on its public figures' unpredictable theatrics. With the guile of an arrogant con man, he played to an increasingly fractured nation using social media. Trump took a distinct liking to Twitter, where he adopted the rhetorical flair of a WWE brawler.

With Donald Trump No Longer the Heart of Online Discourse, There's Room for a Powerful Shift

He wasn’t just the reality-TV president; it was that he lived somewhere beyond actual reality. He was seemingly omnipresent: in meme form and GIFs, hectoring in soundbites, mocked on Saturday Night Live. In time, it began to feel like Trump was the only fixed point around which all of us orbited, even as many tried to avoid his dangerous pull.

Ultimately, Trump’s tweets became the national conversation currency, the mould it would need to fill. His genre was a no-holds-barred shock. He was a shameless bully and a paragon of casual bigotry in the media. None of which makes the fact of the matter any less true: For the entirety of his tenure in the White House, @realDonaldTrump was the centre of the social media universe. Whole days were bound to his erratic persona, petty grievances, and big-boy tantrums. His Twitter account became the single most influential particle of social media of the past five years, a bit of unpredictability that came to be relied upon even as it took a mental toll.

Whether you agreed with Trump’s strongman style of statecraft never mattered, because the appeal, for disciples and critics alike, was always there. “Traditional media needs conflict, sensationalism, and drama to keep up their ratings, and Trump provided that,” says Magdalena Wojcieszak, a communications professor at UC Davis. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s tweets fueled cable news coverage, resulting in disproportionately more airtime (what amounted to $2 billion of free media). “And that continued through his presidency,” Wojcieszak says.

Joe Biden

That was, until January 8, when Twitter “permanently suspended” him from the platform following the insurrection in DC, where a pro-Trump mob pillaged the halls of the Capitol Building just as members of Congress were voting to certify Joe Biden’s election win.

To explain its decision, Twitter cited two tweets in particular—neither rank among Trump’s worst, mind you—saying they were “likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place.” Other tech companies followed suit, taking collective action to cut loose the very cables that had maintained Trump’s centre of power for so long.

“We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said.

Facebook’s oversight board will decide to lift Trump’s suspension. But by unilaterally stripping Trump of his account, the move also illustrated just how influential tech companies could be when they want to muzzle public discourse.

The bans, long overdue, had a tranquillizer effect; suddenly, timelines felt a little less deranged. On Twitter and in other corners of the internet, the spread of disinformation declined 73 per cent, according to a report in The Washington Post.

But an internet without Trump also leaves us with a series of questions. What happens to an ecosystem like