Earlier this month, Donald Trump lashed out at the same social media platforms which helped him win the 2016 election, charging Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with being puppets of “the Radical Left”.
It was hardly the first time the president has attacked America’s most valuable companies, each of which affords Trump the opportunity to inject his patented brand of balderdash directly into the veins of the voting public whenever he chooses, which is generally all day, every day.
During a May 16, Saturday Twitter marathon, the president threatened to “remedy” what he called “this illegal situation”, and told supporters to “stay tuned and send names”.
Fast forward a little more than a week, and Twitter refused to heed calls from a widower who asked Jack Dorsey to remove the president’s tweets suggesting the deceased was murdered by Joe Scarborough. That refusal itself sparked outrage and should have assuaged the president that, if anything, Twitter is loath to rein him in.
And yet, Twitter did take one step that amounted to a slap on the wrist for one of its most prolific and prominent users. The platform added an addendum to a pair of Trump’s tweets encouraging users to “get the facts”, after the president tweeted misleading information and unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting.
Trump was furious. He accused Twitter of stifling “free speech” and said, explicitly, that he “would not allow it”.
Twitter is, of course, a private company. Ostensibly, there isn’t anything Trump can do. Nobody has “the right” to use Twitter. Dorsey can boot anyone from the platform at any time for any reason, subject to very narrow constraints which would have to be adjudicated in the Supreme Court.
Fast forward to Wednesday, and Trump threatened to “close down” social media.
“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen”, Trump declared, adding that “we saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016”.
The irony is almost too much to bear.
Trump’s long-standing contention that these companies are engaged in a conspiracy aimed at overthrowing his administration flies in the face of the unanimous conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies that Russia utilized sophisticated social media campaigns to assist his bid for the Oval Office.
Trump’s allegations against Facebook seem even more dubious when you consider how adept his campaign is at wielding the platform to his advantage.
He then doubled down on his unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting, effectively daring Twitter to fact-check him again.
“We can’t let large scale Mail-In Ballots take root in our Country”, he said. “It would be a free for all on cheating, forgery and the theft of Ballots”.
He took it a step further, as he’s wont to do. “Whoever cheated the most would win. Likewise, Social Media. Clean up your act, NOW!!!!”
It’s alway the same story. Trump makes threats against private companies and his base has one of two reactions. The less fervent contingent says that Trump’s bombast aside, we are a nation of laws and Trump cannot “close down” private enterprise on a whim. The real acolytes simply champion the narrative and express support for whatever the president wants to do in terms of indulging his inner authoritarian.
The problem with the threats against social media is two-fold.
First, a crackdown on these companies has bipartisan support. Obviously, no one outside of Trump would suggest the government should “close down” Twitter by executive decree, but some Republicans harbor a similar grudge against the platforms for their perceived “biases”. Meanwhile, some Democrats want to break up big tech on antitrust grounds. As I’ve noted repeatedly, Trump would likely support the antitrust push, not because he cares about monopolies, but rather because he can wield the Justice department as a political weapon against the companies under the guise of antitrust investigations.
Second, these companies disproportionately shoulder the burden of the US equity market. I’ve used the following visual before, and I’ll likely use it again. Outside of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, there’s not much in the way of top- and bottom-line growth. This dynamic will be exacerbated in the post-COVID world.
In simple terms, this isn’t a good time for Trump to continually pile public pressure on these companies, especially when both the Justice department and state attorneys general appear poised to file suits against Google as soon as this summer.
With Amazon, the situation is even worse, as it involves the Post Office, which one assumes would have a role to play in mail-in ballots.
The whole thing is entirely pernicious and wildly inappropriate for reasons I certainly hope are apparent to all sane Americans, Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.
It is absolutely undesirable for the executive to threaten to “close down” private companies for, in this case, having the audacity to encourage their customers not to take demonstrable falsehoods at face value. What Twitter did is no different from what the makers of household disinfectants did last month, when at least one company issued a public statement imploring Americans not to ingest household cleaners after the president’s ill-advised, ad hoc musings during a coronavirus briefing.
This entire situation stems mostly from the right-wing echo chamber’s penchant for posting misinformation (at best) and provable lies (at worst) on social media, where millions of Americans get their news. When politicians amplify those lies, it erodes the democratic process.
This isn’t a partisan issue. It just is what it is. Everyone knows the president tweets falsehoods and everyone is equally apprised of the extent to which some of his most ardent supporters in the media and on Capitol Hill are similarly predisposed to trafficking in unproven conspiracy theories and just generally being careless with the facts. This applies to everything from voter fraud to climate change. It isn’t about “spin” or “interpretation” or “free speech” or “opinion”. It’s about fact versus fiction.
Now, the president is effectively saying that if he isn’t allowed to post unfounded allegations to 80 million people, he will use the office of the president to “strongly regulate” or “close down” Twitter and other social media platforms. Those are his verbatim words from a Wednesday morning tweet.
Those proposed “remedies” are precisely the kinds of tactics employed in Turkey, Iran and China.
Shareholders in General Motors, Harley-Davidson and plenty of other names hardly need to be reminded that their figurative and literal fortunes on some days wax and wane depending on the president’s tweets.
The excuse from the president’s backers on Capitol Hill and, more generally, from Republican voters who aren’t “the base” but who still support the president’s broader agenda, is always the same: “Well, he wouldn’t do that”. Or, “well, he can’t do that”.
But with William Barr at his side, the line between what Trump “can” and “can’t” do is increasingly blurry.
One would like to think there would be a moment of clarity for many voters if it ever came to a situation where the government actually moved to close down a social media company for fact-checking the president.
But I’m not wholly optimistic about that for one very simple reason: Many Americans can no longer separate fact from fiction.