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.
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.
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 Twitter when the person who represented both the centre and a source of a certain disorder is banished? On top of that, what consequence does that have on users?
Wojcieszak is convinced that, even with Trump gone, not much will shift online. While the former president operated at its core, users of all political affiliations held him there. That nucleus was “sustained by users like you and I and traditional media,” Wojcieszak says, explaining how Trump's tweets regularly proliferated from Twitter to cable news and liberal websites. “Even now, we are still amplifying his online presence.” Banning Trump could have the paradoxical effect of emboldening his supporters even more or sending them to other platforms. Still, social media will not need to be totally remade without his image.
As of this posting, Trump remains in digital exile—a total of 17 tech companies have taken action against him, from YouTube and Snapchat to TikTok—but chances are he won’t stay ostracized for long, says Christopher Federico, who teaches political science at the University of Minnesota. “Former presidents usually observe the norm of staying out of the limelight and not commenting on their successors, but Trump is not likely to observe that norm any more than he observes other norms,” he told me. “To the extent that he remains an influential kingmaker and opinion leader in the Republican world, the volume might not get turned down as much we might expect.”
In his farewell address from Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday morning, Trump promised as much, saying, “We will be back in some form.”
It’s that very sense of defiant norm-breaking that gave a dangerous meaning to his presidency, the lasting effects of which have extended well beyond the rowdy planes of social media. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University and the author of How Emotions Are Made, says the Trump years are best understood as a “public health crisis,” which makes his ostensibly diminishing role in our digital lives no less complicated than before. He may be gone for the moment, but the repercussions remain.
Trump’s tweets were often erratic in a way that fed public uncertainty. Still, Feldman Barrett notes that even unpredictability when it comes in a steady-enough stream can feel like sureness. With him banned, what we are experiencing now is a new kind of instability.
“As Trump withdraws from the central stage or as news agencies turn their attention away from him, and his platform gets smaller, to some extent it will be a change that will come with an increase in uncertainty,” she says, “which will come as an increase in arousal for people, which most people experience as anxiety.”
It’s helpful to think of Trump’s five years of deranged tweeting as little taxes on the body. Each tweet that caused stress, in and of itself, was not a big event. But Feldman Barrett warns that those taxes compound over time. “Like a drop of water boring a hole through a steel pipe, eventually the water breaks through.”
And that’s what’s happening currently. “It’s not a coincidence that we have record levels of depression, anxiety, opioid use—and of course, there are other causes for that, and those things were on the rise before the Trump presidency,” she says, but we cannot understate the damage. “When it comes to the human nervous system, you don’t have single causes of anything. You have lots of small, nonlinear causes which interact with each other in a complex way to produce any health or illness. I think the Trump presidency, for a lot of people, was a persistent public health stressor.”
America is at the beginning of a new turn. Still unclear are how the Trump era's friction will endure online without its leader at the centre of the chaos he was so artful at spinning.
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