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Social media's decision to dump Trump too little, too late: U of T's Megan Boler

(photo by Stephan Schulz/picture alliance via Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump no longer has access to the massive social media following that was a feature of his presidency after Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon all took actions to halt or limit his use of their platforms in the wake of last week’s violence on Capitol Hill.

Twitter and Facebook both locked Trump’s accounts, while Apple, Google and Amazon removed the app Parler – favoured by Trump’s supporters and the far right – from their web hosting services.

The moves came after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers worked to count electoral votes from the presidential election, won by President-elect Joe Biden. Five people died.

 

U of T News spoke with Megan Boler, a professor in the department of social education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), about how Trump’s presidency has impacted the social media landscape, why social media companies have chosen to act against him now and what the future holds for him and his supporters in the online world.


How vital has social media been to the Trump presidency?

It’s so important to recognize that it was an absolute historical precedent having a president who had a direct, unmediated line of communication to his base in this way.

In the past, we would have had a president holding press correspondent meetings and that would give journalists and editors an opportunity to ask questions and perhaps to mediate some of the lies, but he was essentially able to produce – as everyone has spoken about – “alternative facts,” or an alternative reality with his base, culminating in this last, most damaging lie regarding the allegation that the election had been stolen.

It was absolutely vital to his presidency and part of what was necessary for him to begin to systematically erode the foundations of democracy – both in terms of setting new precedents for how he spoke to his base to his attacks and erosion of trust in the fourth estate and in journalism. So I can’t emphasize strongly enough how vital social media has been.

There have been calls for social media companies to ban Trump’s accounts for some time. Why have they taken this step now?

Most obviously because if they had not, they would have looked so bad and it would’ve hurt their reputation. They simply had to or their integrity would’ve been in question, although for many, it already is and was in question for the past four years – particularly, one could say, since Charlottesville, Va. Because one can argue – and I think one of the most dangerous arguments we’re seeing – is that hate speech equals free speech. And that is something that we have to educate all quarters of the public about.

As long as things remain solely online and solely expressions and text, everybody can say “This is a matter of free speech.” But in the instance of Charlottesville, and in the instance of what we saw happen last week, it was an occasion in which the violence poured over from online to offline, and that was what was particularly disturbing.

People are debating what it was that we witnessed at the Capitol and whether it was actually a coup attempt. I don’t understand how people can even question whether it was, but people seem to question what kind of violence that was – if it was just a mob gone crazy or a one-off.

In any event, it was violence that moved from online into the real world, and that’s part of what pushed this over the edge and forced the social media companies to make this decision.

In making that decision, have companies such as Facebook and Twitter set a precedent by taking responsibility for content published on their platforms?

We’ve seen such a rollercoaster over the past four years in terms of Facebook in particular having been called to the stand to face censure and legislative challenges as to why they are not taking action. So Facebook’s record in terms of not taking any responsibility for what they have fomented is just shocking.

There are occasions – such as when Facebook took InfoWars off [the platform]. So, there are moments here and there where they decide something has gone far enough.

But I think we’re all on the edge of our seats waiting to see what the next move is going to be.

What does the future hold for Trump and his supporters on social media, now that he’s no longer on Twitter and Facebook?

The thing that’s most disturbing is that lots of other stand-ins are doing Trump’s work for him. The far right is extremely well-orchestrated. I suppose in many ways, Trump has clearly been the newly born Christ-figure and saviour of this movement, but I think he has mobilized a movement and there are plenty of other leaders in the wings who can take up that slack. So it doesn’t really matter whether he has a Twitter account or not.

What are they going to do about Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and other names like Jack Posobiec and Candace Owens? There are plenty of other people who are fomenting the far right and keeping this movement alive and radicalizing new members.

This also touches on something I think is so crucial: In 2017, the scholar and journalist Whitney Philips wrote a study called The Oxygen of Amplification in which she outlined the ways in which journalism has to be so careful about how it reports on this. I have been so disturbed by the repetition of those images that we saw at the Capitol. That is doing the publicity for the far-right and for white supremacists. Those images have emboldened people. That is success for them.

I really hope that, in addition to social media companies taking responsibility for censoring people, we will also take stock of the fact that we have to be very careful with how we report on this.

Could there be a broader fallout for social media companies?

There was a movement after the Cambridge Analytica scandal where there was a big cry to get off Facebook – and many did. In particular, it was not just to get off social media, but specifically to get off Facebook and use different kinds of social platforms. So we may see that.

Right now, the focus isn’t on what the broader public will do but what’s going to happen to the far right. It’s really great that you’re asking that question because it is a moment where we all have to say: “What are the social implications of social media?” We clearly have not taken them seriously enough.

Many would say the genie is out of the bottle, the Pandora’s box has been opened and there is no going back – and I think, in many ways, that is true. So now we’re faced with really difficult questions of legislation, policy and reform – and it’s going to be a long, uphill battle.

What are the lessons to be learned from the social media landscape of Trump’s presidency?

I really fear that it’s too late, but I think some directions are important to think about.

First, we should think about what it would mean to reinvigorate local news because that has just devastated the news media landscape. Local news is essentially happening through these social media platforms. So, thinking about whether there could be greater funding for publicly funded media. That would create shared media that’s responsible for certain kinds of standards. That might be a model to think about. So, really encouraging people to unplug from social media.

The other key aspect of this is demanding there be policies that social media monopolies abide by, and that there be limits on the monopolies. We know that major lawsuits have begun against Facebook and there are hopes that maybe that will have an effect.

As well, thinking about how we’re going to deal with the rise of white supremacy and this kind of fascism is really, really critical. What I mentioned about ensuring that we begin to educate the public about why hate speech is not free speech is really crucial. In my mind, that’s the first and foremost thing because any move that is made right now to limit these other accounts of the far-right is going to be seen as censorship.

So, we need to have really critical public education about what constitutes hate speech and what constitutes free speech – perhaps particularly in Canada because the U.S. does have more of a history of legal debate about this, and I think it’s important for Canada to rethink its legislation around hate speech policy.

How have traditional news media been affected by Trump’s use of social media?

One thing I find really interesting is that Trump has made so much money for media and for the news. He has kept the news alive for four years. So, there’s an interesting tension in the news industry – on the one hand, we can have a great deal of sympathy that the news industry, in light of the internet, has been losing so much revenue and that they have to do what they have to do to stay alive.

That said, after 2016 it was very clear that the news had been responsible for giving Trump an incredible amount of free advertising and publicity – far more than they’d given Hillary Clinton – and that’s because Trump filled news. We have some sort of phenomenal, insane fascination around the world with Trump.

There are real, moral questions about the news having reported on Trump’s Twitter feed because so often those posts were lies and yet the news would repeat them. As we know, that’s highly problematic. The repetition of a lie makes it seem true – and even if you do counter it, it never really succeeds in correcting information.

I’ve noticed that in the absence of Trump having Twitter, there’s still just as much conversation – we’re still talking about it – and I’m so curious to see the extent to which we will continue talking about Trump even when he’s not president. I predict he will still be on the front pages of most of our news sites.

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