With Musk looking set to reverse Trump's Twitter ban, is our reunification with normality short-lived? Where are we heading?
Organisms generally need oxygen to survive and flourish. Certain organisms require more oxygen to reach their peak.
In the social media ecosystem, whose habitats include the undrained swamps of the American elite, one apex predator once reigned supreme. And in the misinformation mudslinging and disinformation data-dumping, Trump’s famed Twitter rule came to an abrupt end.
However, that permanent suspension appears to have the same degree of endurance enjoyed by press secretaries in the former President’s chaotic White House. Except, this time, the swamp thing will return.
Elon Musk—a disputed self-made millionaire—is due to take over Twitter. As a free speech absolutist—the sort of person who would like to call a relative nobody a “pedo guy” to millions of his own followers from a position of power and get away with it—Musk has pledged to overturn Trump’s permanent ban.
In a conference organized by The Financial Times, he said:
I would reverse the permanent ban. I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump. I think that was a mistake. It alienated the country and did not result in Donald Trump not having a voice. I think it was a morally bad decision and foolish in the extreme.
Trump initially denied he would return to Twitter, favoring his own newly founded social media platform Truth Social. However, the outright Twitter copycat has utterly failed to make its mark, with two tech executives recently quitting after the app was plagued with issues (and only being available on Apple devices!).
Over the last year or so, and despite all of the crazy goings-on—the pandemic repercussions, the cost-of-living crises, war, and climate change—the Twitterverse has seen a return to some kind of political and social-media normality in the U.S.
The White House, with its comparatively competent press secretary, has calmed down. We haven’t been glued to social media to either hear the latest Presidential faux-pas or to ogle at the massive resultant fallout. Twitter’s absence from Trump’s fingertips has given everyone a much-needed break.
This has not just been about denying Trump the oxygen to fuel his sniping, but it also allowed other voices and other topics the space to stretch out and be noticed. This has perhaps been a win-win.
Trump’s ban has been the subject of much analysis since January last year. Many have argued that Trump and Twitter are a match made in heaven. “It’s literally designed for provocative social interaction,” tweeted Bethenny Frankel of The Real Housewives of New York City. “Getting kicked off Twitter is about as hard to do as getting booted from the housewives.”
Despite the idea that Trump has passed the baton to acolytes like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the fact that false information about COVID-19 and elections is still plentiful on Twitter, it seems that this isn’t enough to satisfy the baying online crowds of Trump supporters who believe banning him was a free speech violation.
But maybe Trump’s absence hasn’t shown a step-change in the way many liberals had hoped or imagined. As Derek Robertson opined in Politico, “[D]espite the social media giants’ best efforts to clean up their own streets, it’s difficult to credibly say the country’s overall epistemological health has improved.” Disinformation and misinformation still abound, and polls consistently show a (Republican) predisposition for believing it. He continued:
Tougher enforcement from Big Tech companies might earn them goodwill from media critics, a leg up in the fierce Silicon Valley competition for young, liberal talent, or credibility in the burgeoning and lucrative “disinformation” industry. But the overall informational landscape remains just as gnarled and difficult to navigate, even on a Twitter that censors the most overt fallacies. Furthermore, Trump’s continued domination of the GOP puts the lie to the idea that Twitter was somehow a political Excalibur that uniquely empowered him to convert a nation of otherwise-innocent rubes into die-hard fanatics. Trump innovated in his use of social media, to say the least. But to credit social media and cable news coverage for his power conveniently elides the weakness and torpor of the political order that preceded him, which required nothing more than a rhetorical push from a boorish reality television star to topple.
But where we have certainly seen an improvement in the state of affairs with Trump’s absence from Twitter has been his inability to “micromanage the news cycle,” which has been significantly diminished. No longer are reporters glued to Trump’s feed, salivating over what tidbits and even morsels they might be fed. Trump isn’t defining our news diet in the way he used to, and we are healthier for it.
For one thing, Trump’s tweets served as a distraction; journalists were too busy looking at the garish paintwork and failed to notice all the GOP machinations taking place under the hood. Before we knew it, the lower courts were stacked with conservative judges, environmental legislation had been stripped away, and any number of egregious political acts had flown under the radar. We were all too fixated on the tweets to notice the political tremors.
The impending takeover, though not yet finalized, is certainly something to worry about for liberals and left-minded people. Musk sees Twitter as a bastion of the liberal media:
Musk also reiterated criticisms that Twitter’s staff are too leftwing, saying they were influenced by being headquartered in San Francisco, regarded as one of the most liberal cities in the US. Twitter is “coming out of an environment that is very far left”, he said.
“Twitter needs to be much more even-handed,” he said. “It’s currently left-biased.”
This certainly suggests that there will be only one direction of travel in the Space X CEO’s piloting of Twitter: further from planet Lib, and with a bearing set to the dark recesses of deep-space depravity.
It may well be that Elon Musk is wearing his ideological heart on his sleeve. This wouldn’t be in the least bit surprising. But perhaps (and this may be a both/and as opposed to an either/or), Musk knows the business model of Twitter only too well. Politico’s Robertson rightly observes the reality of the social media platform’s model:
The “remain” contingent has by far the most persuasive argument. There’s a vast body of research showing the powerful link between moral outrage and the virality demanded by digital advertising revenue models. People get angry and they’re more likely to engage with a post, which benefits Twitter, as well as media companies who can use those engagement numbers to sell advertising. The obviously toxic incentive this creates has led some news organizations to experiment with alternative revenue models, like donations or an old-school focus on subscriptions. But unlike the pre-internet and social media era, there’s an infinite amount of space to be filled and infinite configurations of consumer choice. That makes Twitter, with its relatively small but highly energized and influential user base, the natural platform of choice for merchants of outrage, agitprop and propaganda of all ideological flavors.
So while there may be a number of liberal commentators and media consumers who are happy with Trump’s absence, it seems an inevitability that he will return under the presumed control of Elon Musk. Musk’s own politics appear to err toward the libertarian right, but he is also a savvy entrepreneur. After all, he has a slew of successful business ventures from electric cars to Paypal, neuroscience technology to space travel, satellite tech that is helping in the Ukraine war to solar panel energy storage. So he is likely to have a good handle on Twitter and what makes it tick. The incentives for both Musk and Trump to unite in Twitter heaven remain clear and obvious.
Whether you are licking your lips with anticipation or packing your bags ready to eject your escape pod to planet CounterSocial, we probably won’t have confirmation of Musk’s Twitter takeover for a month or two.
The problem with sites like Twitter is that the advantage and disadvantage are the same: everyone is there.
And it’s not just people who just disagree politely, like at your neighbor’s party with guests who hold different political views. It’s people who have made racist threats, spread dangerous and life-threatening misinformation, and illegally tampered with an election. Those who defend free speech are most often those who defend their desire and ability to insult and offend others.
Trump’s rejoining Twitter could well signal open season for serial offenders, and if left unchecked, it will operate at the beck and call of the lowest common denominator.
At what point do we say “enough is enough?” Twitter had finally reached that point, only for Elon Musk to shift into reverse.
Allowing Trump back sends a message that facts and truth do not matter—or at least, that the ability to openly lie is more important than the desire and capacity to protect the truth.