Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 6 August 2020

Trump's social media summit reveals a new and darkly authoritarian, post-truth information order

The first Twitter President still feels persecuted by the very online platforms he exploits

Guests at Donald Trump's social media summit. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Guests at Donald Trump's social media summit. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Donald Trump is obviously the first Twitter president in US history. As Franklin D Roosevelt perfected the use of radio and John F Kennedy television as instruments of governance, Mr Trump has made social media the tool of a new style of outreach to the public.

Yet he has a love-hate relationship with the social media he relies on, because he and his supporters have made an art form of playing fast and loose with the truth, norms and even rules.

They’re right to feel vulnerable about being able to sustain such conduct. Some of the most extreme, like Alex Jones of Infowars, are finally being banned from various online platforms for consistent racism, incitement to violence and libellous conspiracy theories.

Mr Trump’s political mentor, Roy Cohn, preached a doctrine of denial, evasion and constant attack, and his best student unwaveringly follows his playbook.

So, now that his far-right supporters are finally faced with red lines on hate speech by social media companies, Mr Trump decided to counterattack.

On Thursday, in the most outlandish circus ever held at the White House and its stately Rose Garden, the president convened a menagerie of 200 internet provocateurs at a “social media summit”. Social media companies themselves were, naturally, not invited.

The worst of the worst were not present, but the guest list was largely composed of conspiracy theorists, hate-mongers and slime-throwers, there to simultaneously celebrate and castigate the social media in which they thrive.

Mr Trump was in his element, having risen to political prominence as the loudest proponent of the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and therefore was an illegitimate president.

In the most outlandish circus ever held at the White House, the president convened a menagerie of 200 internet provocateurs

Mr Trump set the tone, celebrating his mastery of Twitter, marvelling at its power, and boasting about the ease with which he uses it to dominate news cycles. He even boasted about the effectiveness of his Tweets, falsely accusing Mr Obama of having wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 election campaign.

Like his guests, Mr Trump values social media, particularly Twitter, precisely because it lends itself so readily to the propagation of such falsehoods – stories that would never be lent credibility by the mainstream news media. Mr Trump and his coterie were clear that they view social media as a corrective to the “fake news” of actual fact-based reportage.

“The crap you think of is unbelievable,” Mr Trump told the assembled provocateurs, obviously intending a compliment.

Since the Roy Cohn playbook holds that attack is the best form of defence, although they rely on Twitter and Facebook, Mr Trump and his far-right minions have been increasingly complaining that these companies have an anti-conservative bias.

Not only is there no evidence of that, it is both obvious and empirically verified that conservatives have been much more effective in going viral on these platforms than liberals.

The point of these groundless complaints is to stave off any additional efforts to curtail hate speech, conspiracy theories and the deliberate spreading of libellous falsehoods.

Twitter even recently decreed that, owing to public interest in their pronouncements, world leaders such as Mr Trump could break their rules without risking suspension, although offending tweets might be labelled as such.

There is also a struggle in the courts over whether politicians such as Mr Trump can block other users based on their political views. A judge recently ruled that, because the president uses Twitter as a public forum for governance, he can’t.

Now, Mr Trump waxes furious at the idea that, even though he governs by Tweet, he is not allowed to block people who disagree with him, while simultaneously denouncing social media companies for supposedly discriminating against his allies because of their own political beliefs.

Mr Trump directly threatened legal protections for fact-based reportage, saying: “Free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposefully write bad. To me, that’s very dangerous speech and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”

He also vowed to “explore all regulatory and legislative solutions” to control social media.

The president insisted he would have been elected without Twitter, but that cannot be known. He is the Twitter president, using social media with unprecedented effectiveness while castigating it as biased against him.

Sure, these are mutually exclusive thoughts, but that’s the beauty of narratives that can reach the public directly at an emotional level, without any effective fact checking by actual journalists.

Mr Trump was partly trying to distract attention from his final surrender on the issue of adding a citizenship question to the upcoming census.

But he was also certainly trying to protect the strong advantage he and his troll army gain from social media by condemning it in advance of any pushback.

This adds up to a clear vision of a darkly authoritarian, post-truth new American information order that may never be born, but is clearly gestating in the right-wing womb.

So is the idea, which Mr Trump keeps “joking” about – on Twitter, naturally – that he will be president long after constitutional term limits, if not for life.

Neither are likely, but anyone who thinks the president and his allies are just kidding about any of this is being pathetically naive.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: July 14, 2019 03:44 PM

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