Platform companies have finally come to grips with their roles as owners of battlefields.
By the numbers, no person in human history has shared more conspiracy theories with a greater number of people than Donald J. Trump. Among all the momentous events of the last week, the silencing of his social-media megaphones is a “yuge” moment not just for American politics but a host of issues from public health to national security.
In researching LikeWar, Emerson Brooking’s and my book on the weaponization of social media, I actually went back and read every single @realdonaldtrump tweet, going back to his very first: a May 4, 2009, announcement of his upcoming appearance on the Letterman show. As you sift through the more than 57,000 tweets that follow, the sheer scale of the lies and insults becomes mind-numbing. (I joke about my “information warfare PTSD.”) Yet what is also notable is how many conspiracy theories Trump both started or massively elevated long before becoming president. They ranged from well-known lies like birtherism to other ones that are even more despicable in retrospect, like fueling anti-vaccine myths.
Most importantly, we found that Trump was spectacularly effective in persuading others to spread his conspiracy theories. Our research showed that, just like in public health, superspreaders are the key to virality. The path to making the internet less toxic is placing limits on these superspreaders, be they ISIS propagandists or right-wing extremists. Instead of trying to police everyone, we must focus on key nodes that affect everyone.
Banning Trump is obviously the headline event for social media, but it reflects a larger policy shift by the companies that created and run these now-essential networks. These firms are now making content moderation decisions based increasingly not just on whether a user or a post violated their rules, but what effect these might have on people off the network. This was already shifting as firms adjusted to reduce COVID-19 misinformation, but hit its culmination in Trump’s ejection.
Over the last year, and seen most explosively in the violent seizing of the Capitol, the political context changed, both on social media and in the real world. But Trump didn’t seem to understand it. Or, maybe, having never been held accountable from birth onwards, the outgoing president thought he could keep on operating the same way: crossing a line, and getting away with it. Importantly, Twitter decided he had crossed a final line. He had not just repeatedly broken the platform’s rules on election-fraud claims. Now, even after all the events at the Capitol, he had used his return to Twitter after an initial suspension to immediately break the pledge of a “peaceful transition” that he had made in a stilted video released just the night before.
What too many in media and politics are missing, but what Twitter and the other platforms couldn’t ignore, was Trump’s announcement that he would not be participating in the Inaugural events. With that, he didn’t just go back on his pledge of peaceful transition, but threw gasoline on the fire yet again. There were already a series of extremist militia events planned for Jan. 17 in various state capitals. (The storming of the U.S. Capitol was not isolated; last week saw armed pro-Trump mobs also attempt or succeed in breaking into state legislatures and governors’ homes in Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington state.) Even more worrisome, security analysts had picked up online discussion of a “Million Militia March” set for Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. Its purpose, at least in the chatter, is not just to disrupt Biden’s inauguration, but also to seek violent payback on police for the supposed “martyrdom” of the rioter killed in the Capitol. Twitter officials concluded that Trump’s tweets “are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021.”
Whether Trump intended the dual dog whistle or not, it was heard that way by both the “patriots” whom he’d told he “loved” even as they rampaged and chanted “Hang Mike Pence, Hang Mike Pence,” and by the platform companies that own the networks he needed for his rabble-rousing messages. And for them, as it should be for the rest of us, Trump had lost the benefit of the doubt.
The reverberations of Trump’s deplatforming as part of this larger shift will shake out for not just the coming days, but over the long term — and in everything from terrorism to public health. The reason is that it fundamentally alters the playing field.
Everything in the social media ecosystem was once tilted in the favor of toxic forces, from the algorithms that push our content feeds toward extremism to the companies’ longstanding reticence to admit it. Imagine a foosball game on a slanted table. Yes, the little soccer players could try to stop each rush of the rolling ball, but all their spinning wouldn’t matter in the end. Over the past few years, however, that table has started to be righted. Driven by outside pressure over election disinformation, mass killings, and COVID-19 striking close to home — and perhaps most significantly, internal employee revolts — the companies’ leaders have put into place a series of measures that make it harder for toxic forces. From banning certain types of ads to de-ranking certain lies, these safeguards built up, piece by piece, culminating in the deplatforming of the Internet’s loudest voice.
Of course, this shift is long overdue. Each new policy came after the fact. Those of us who work on this topic know that many horrible events fueled by social media could have been avoided or at least mitigated with such actions. For myself, the crystalizing moment was being told by a senior social-media executive after the mass killing in Pittsburgh that although his company had been able to limit ISIS’ use of their network, technical and legal reasons meant they couldn’t apply the very same measures to far-right extremists. But after several more social media-linked mass killings — Christchurch, El Paso, etc. — what he’d said was “impossible” suddenly became possible. As Internet wags have commented, the firms’ operating practices have been a bit like Calvinball from the Calvin and Hobbes comic, in which the rules are made up as they go.
Yet what often seems capricious and irresponsible is also understandable. The companies faced a rapidly changing business, technology, and battlefield. And making these kind of decisions is not what most people in tech firms planned on doing when they packed their bags for Silicon Valley. They want to build and profit, not police.
So where does this all leave us now? It certainly seems that the firms have finally come to the realization that they have a whole new set of responsibilities. They are not just tech creators or even the equivalent of news-media editors. After years of dodging it, they get that they are running information warzones. And there is a key change that comes from understanding that social media is not just a communication space but a conflict space. In Clausewitzian terms, the forces of toxicity now face a whole new type of “friction.”
Of course, Trump’s ban from platforms that range from Twitter to Pinterest won’t end the spread of conspiracy theories. For example, the lie that the Capitol riot was the work of antifa was pushed to over a half million engagements within its first day by lesser superspreaders like Rep. Matt Gaetz. Nor will Trump’s exile from social media end the risk of extremism. Already, we see extremists clustering in smaller, tighter nets, some out in the open on networks like Parler or Gab and some hidden from view. As with ISIS or Alex Jones, the faithful will follow, but into smaller rabbit holes.
Yet, in this new conflict space, the most important actor just got moved off the board. The raw numbers show that Trump is not just a key node, but the literal center of multiple overlapping universes of conspiracy theory and extremism, from far-right extremism to QAnon to anti-vaxxers. Now, there is a literal black hole in each.
And while nature may abhor a vacuum, these will not be easily filled. It isn’t that the man is unique. It is that the steps finally taken to rein in history’s greatest superspreader will made it harder for those who follow to have the same effect.