Wednesday, 13 January 2021 05:34

Trump can’t be silenced, even by Facebook and Twitter, but we can prevent another Trump

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Peter Funt

In 1968, as opposition to the Vietnam War mounted, a San Francisco improv group known as "The Committee" presented a chilling sketch, recreating a televised speech by President Lyndon Johnson in which he defended his military campaign. Actors portraying viewers grew angry and tried to kick in the television but the Johnson character bellowed, “You can’t turn me off, I’m you!” — a chant he repeated for over half an hour. 

I thought about that last week when President Donald Trump incited a mob that ravaged the U.S. Capitol. Twitter banned Trump and Facebook suspended his account. They had no choice. But can Trump ever be turned off?

Alas, no. He can be muffled during the critical days remaining before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, but as long as he’s alive he’ll never be permanently silenced. 

An ultimately more important question is whether we’d even want that. After Trump is gone, how will social media react the next time free speech and reckless rhetoric collide? 

Seduce, provoke and lie on Twitter

It’s easy to forget that social media platforms are relatively new. Twitter was launched less than 15 years ago and Facebook two years before that. As private companies, they are free to set their own rules; First Amendment protection, which restricts government censorship, doesn’t apply. 

During his presidency Trump has repeatedly seduced, provoked and lied to his nearly 90 million Twitter followers. Last spring, he responded to Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Minneapolis by tweeting, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." Twitter flagged it for glorifying violence but did not delete the post. Last October Trump tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life.” How many needless deaths did that cause? 

Which brings us to Wednesday’s horror in Washington, D.C.: a perfect storm of misinformation and hate. During the assault, Trump tweeted a video urging protesters to “go home” but also praising them as “very special.” A subsequent tweet again said “go home” while declaring, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots." 

Under the circumstances, Twitter was right to take whatever steps it could to save lives and property. 

Trump’s messaging Friday was less clear cut. He tweeted support for the 74 million people who voted for him (“great American patriots”) and then he tweeted confirmation that he would not attend Biden’s inauguration.

Twitter said those two statements could incite further violence and thus merited a permanent ban. Facebook suspended Trump for at least the duration of his presidency

Twitter's Trump ban: It won't solve the platform's deeper problem of vitriol and violence that threaten democracy

Ban or not, Trump will continue to be heard, perhaps via newer conservative platforms such as Parler and Gab. In response to that possibility, Apple and Google removed the Parler app from their download sites, while Trump floated the notion that he might launch his own social media platform

Trump has left us a confounding mess

This dizzying display of presidential bluster and tech-world power is not good. We can’t have elected leaders inciting violence, nor do we want a future in which private media companies write rules for speech and invoke subjective bans to preempt messaging that has yet to occur. 

A likely outcome is that government will finally take a larger role in regulating the massive social media industry. Of course that, too, is confounding. Conservatives clamor for such controls while also demanding less government involvement in private lives; Democrats often favor more regulation but reject efforts to limit speech. 

Trump mob attack on the Capitol: 10 urgent security questions that need answers

As I pondered the mess that Trump has left us to clean up, I contacted Alan Myerson, who wrote and directed The Committee’s Lyndon Johnson sketch back in 1968. 

“The problem — actually, the crisis — is not Trump,” Myersonsaid. “We, the American people, are the Dr. Frankensteins who have created the conditions that underlie him, his failed presidency, and the virulence of racism, fear, anger, disappointment that allowed him his platform and the emotional and political support of almost half of our country. Unless the causes — the poverty, ignorance, inequality, exceptionalism, militarism — of that virulence are absolutely rooted out, Trumpism by one name or another will persist.” 

Trump, like the Johnson character, might correctly say, “You can’t turn me off.” But he’s wrong if he thinks, “I’m you!” Proving that, however, will require more than a mute button. 


USA Today