For this reason, the election and bizarre presidency of an insurgent disruptor like Donald J. Trump – inconceivable in the era of the mainstream media of the 20th century – was eminently conceivable in this era.
And that’s why Twitter’s decision on Friday evening to permanently ban Trump from its platform is a signaling moment – a historic step, even before we know the consequences that will arise from it.
It is an attempt to reinforce the notion that filters have a place in political communication and that some voices have lost their claim to public legitimacy – even if that voice has 89 million followers and is in just two months after receiving the second highest number of votes of US election history.
Twitter’s announcement was made with a sincere expression as the company said it acted “at risk of further incitement to violence” after Trump’s loud lies about a stolen election inspired supporters to take over the Capitol on Wednesday. There was relief in a wide range of politicians and commentators, many mixed with the desperation of time.
Twitter’s move is clearly an attempt to act responsibly in the face of Trump’s irresponsible words and actions.
Even so, the question seems inevitable: are you sure?
From a purely political perspective, this could give a boost to Trump and his supporters – a new cause of the grievance that is driving them. The moves come right at the moment when his movement looked like it was fatally pierced because Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, Democrats won the Senate in Georgia special elections, and even once loyal Trump Republicans disgusted him have voiced guilt for the uprising on Wednesday.
In a way, Twitter’s move underscores the essential mystery of the age of Trump. His pathetic screaming about a “stolen election” shows contempt for democracy. But he’s a force to be reckoned with – the only reason it’s worth banning your account in the first place – because he has tens of millions of people who believe in him deeply. His attack on democracy is also a perverse expression of democracy.
Historically, Twitter swims – possibly with slack lines – against currents that determine not only contemporary politics, but broader culture as well. Perhaps Twitter believes that its gesture is sufficiently resonant and its influence on public discourse so central that it can change these trends. If so, that’s quite an achievement.
One way to understand these currents is to go back to November 13, 1969 – seven years before Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, was born. Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president, traveled to Des Moines, Iowa to speak and deliver to a meeting of Midwestern Republicans a devastating denunciation of television news.
In words written with the help of Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, Agnew alleged the new government had been hampered by biased reporting and complained: “A raised eyebrow, a bow of voice, a caustic remark in the middle of one Broadcast can be dropped A million minds doubt the correctness of an official or the wisdom of government policy. “
Finally, he urged citizens to question “a small and unelected elite” in the news business.
Whatever you think of Agnew – he stepped down from the vice presidency on a plea after it was discovered that he had been accepting bribes since serving in Maryland politics – he was not in his description of a small and unelected elite far away.
In those days, the group of people – almost entirely white men who lived in New York and Washington – who had the greatest influence on shaping what the vast majority of Americans learned about national government and politics could be named on a pad of paper are listed. Count the anchor, executive producer and head of the Washington office of the three broadcast networks. Throw a dozen of the most important people in the New York Times and Washington Post, and maybe a dozen more in major regional newspapers. And don’t forget the editors and office managers of the then three hugely influential weekly news magazines. And that’s it.
You call that a filter.
If there’s one unified thread of the Conservative movement from Nixon to Rush Limbaugh to Matt Drudge to Newt Gingrich to Trump, it is the establishment news media’s opposition and determination to obsolete their filters.
More recently, the left has offered its own variation on the same theme – building a movement by denouncing both the supposed shyness and conformist spirit of the mainstream media, as well as using the digital revolution to build its own communication channels.
Simply put, there is no longer a “small, unelected elite” with real power. As a result, American politics became far more egalitarian and, from different perspectives, far more congenial. It’s also become far more demagogic, recalcitrant, and vicious.
Can the pendulum ever swing back? It is noteworthy that 18 months ago the then presidential candidate Kamala Harris advocated Trump banning Twitter and scolded Joe Biden for not joining her. At the time, this was largely and perhaps precisely dismissed as a campaign stunt, but if so, it didn’t do anything to lift it. Now Harris sees her idea tested 11 days before she and Biden are sworn in together.
Another paradox: the extreme democratization of the discourse represented by Twitter was also marked by the concentration of power in social media that existed in Agnew’s time. Who the hell voted Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg?
If the new era of right-wing complaints and, last but not least, left-wing complaints led to the spread of sales outlets beyond the giants of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, this could also serve democracy.
Right now it’s hard to be too critical of Twitter to criticize tweets from a politician who has nothing to do with the truth and does not consider the consequences of life and death. However, it is easy to be skeptical that the effect will be what you want it to be. During this time, everyone in the audience serves as their own filter. A media platform is just as responsible and irresponsible – an endless sea of both – as the people who consume its content.