The source of Donald Trump’s strength was also his Achilles heel. When the big social media giants, Twitter and Facebook in particular, curtailed Trump’s ability to post, he became a severely pared-back figure on the world stage even before his successor Joe Biden was sworn in. Trump didn’t do it without social media. It has not been possible to harass Republican lawmakers so successfully or to rally its supporters so effectively. It is noteworthy that calls for protests against the state capitals have stalled after the botched January 6th coup.
Deplatforming works now, as is clear. Without the social media megaphone, Trump is no longer the booming and scary Wizard of Oz, but the pathetic little man behind the curtain. But muting has its price. It showed the tremendous power that private social media have. In response, both social media companies and mainstream news outlets and think tanks have stepped up their surveillance of language. These powerful centrist institutions, likely motivated by a misguided effort to prove they are balanced, are now actively seeking to silence voices that are driving conservatives crazy.
As Jacobin Editor Bhaskar Sunkara reported On Saturday: “The UK’s largest revolutionary socialist organization has removed its Facebook pages and groups and Twitter has banned a number of US-based anarchist accounts.” Youtube strike on the left news account The Serfs claimed it violated rules on “fraudulent practices” in an anti-Trump news report. In Spain YouTube banished the broadcaster La Marea, a major left-wing source in Spain, for alleged “hatred” when reporting on the vigilante migrants attacking. On Sunday Facebook closed the site of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan, an officially recognized campus group.
The same pattern is noticeable in other media. As Adam Serwer from The Atlantic written down On Saturday: “This week alone, people from the New York Times, Niskanen Center and Fox News have been fired for driving conservatives crazy.”
The cases cited by Serwer vary, but all speak for a new media environment in which mainstream corporations appear to be more nervous about insulting Trump supporters and are doing their best to counter critical voices.
On Thursday the journalist Yashar Ali reported“Lauren Wolfe, editor at NYT, terminated her contract after tweeting on the left. Wolfe also tweeted which is on the right, but deleted when she learned that Biden had taken his own plane.” (Actually Wolfe did not have a contract but an informal professional agreement that was separated.)
Ali posted two screenshots of which Wolfe wrote: “Biden is now landing at Joint Base Andrews. I have the chills. “Wolfe’s other tweet alleged that the Trump administration broke tradition by not sending a military plane to pick up Biden. Wolfe deleted that tweet himself after discovering the claim was not true.
Wolfe’s tweet that she had “chills” was criticized by some conservatives as well as the heterodox reporter Glenn Greenwald for the reasons it showed bias.
The circumstances under which Wolfe fired remain bleak. A spokesman for The New York Times told The Washington Post“There is a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter. For privacy reasons, we do not address personnel matters, but we can say that we did not end a person’s employment with a single tweet. Out of respect for the people involved, we are not planning any further comments.”
The wording of this rejection, which states that a “single tweet” was not the cause, leaves open the possibility that two or more tweets triggered the shot. The matter remains worrying as the two tweets barely deserve a job loss. One is an innocent mistake that was quickly corrected, the other not even a partisan phrase but a simple relief, widespread across the political spectrum, that a peaceful transfer of power was going on. (The shooting of Wolfe is all the more puzzling than that Times detained journalists who have committed much larger crimes, particularly podcast producer Michael Barbaro, who oversaw a broadcast report on ISIS It was riddled with false statements from someone who had lied about being a member of the terrorist group. At least that suggests a double standard in the paper.)
The Times, which had much marketing success as the voice of resistance in the Trump era, appears to be reformulating itself in its more traditional role as a centrist outlet offering a neutral perspective. This is perfectly understandable as a business decision, but it creates a short-sighted standard of objectivity. Like many centrist news agencies, this is Times Mistakes that do not express an opinion because they are impartial. This leads to the paradox of wanting to hire reporters who are well informed – but indifferent to what they write about, as if it were commonplace. Real objectivity means a hard-earned professional adherence to tracking down the truth and presenting it accurately – a quality that is equally easy to find in both opinion and non-politics.
On Wednesday, Will Wilkinson, vice president of the moderately conservative think tank Niskanen Center, tweeted“If Biden really wanted unity, he would lynch Mike Pence.” The meaning of this joke, a literal exercise in gallows humor, is clear: Trump supporters threatened to hang up pence on January 6th. Unity, if led to its logical and absurd conclusion, would mean making common cause with these possible assassins. It was a mockery of the empty rhetoric of unity. Wilkinson quickly realized the tweet was distasteful and deleted it with an apology.
Like right outlets The federalist recorded Wilkinson’s tweet and made the nasty argument that it was meant literally. Jerry Taylor, the President of Niskanen, answered with a statement: “As an organization, the Niskanen Center values and promotes the interesting and provocative online discourse. However, we draw the line with statements that are interpreted as tolerating or promoting violence or that can be interpreted in any way. As such, it was with a heavy heart that the Niskanen Center parted ways with Will Wilkinson. “Wilkinson is also contributing to Timeswho said it was reviewing his contract.
Fox News is, of course, a far-right company, but its news division is often viewed as much more objective and truthful than its opinion side. But after the January 6th coup failed, Fox appears to want to win back right-wing supporters by disciplining their news reporters. As the Times reported on Tuesday,
Two senior Fox News reporting executives are leaving the network as the cable channel replaces some news programs with right-wing opinion broadcasts and seeks to draw back viewers who have resisted coverage of the 2020 election and its aftermath.
On Tuesday morning, Fox News fired Chris Stirewalt, the veteran politics editor who was on the network’s election night projection that Joseph R. Biden Jr. defeated President Trump in Arizona, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
The social media clampdown combined with the layoffs in Times, the Niskanen Center and Fox News all point in the same direction: Big institutions are now trying to appease Trumpian law. The cost of Trump’s reassurance as a public voice is that many other voices are now being silenced as well. This is too high a price to pay and it reminds us that the real battle for media democracy has only just begun, even though Trump has left.