Much of the outrage around the Trump era and social media platforms — like, most recently, the decision by Facebook and Twitter to reduce the reach of a highly questionable New York Post story about Hunter Biden — is actually about government power and accountability. More specifically, people are angry about the absence of those things.
Going back to the 2016 Republican primaries, institutions that many people thought would act as a check on Donald Trump’s rise to power have failed to stop him. Rules around emoluments and the Hatch Act have gone ignored. Even broader efforts to rein in Trump — the Mueller investigation, his impeachment — changed little about the president’s behavior.
But authority abhors a vacuum. As far as many people are concerned, if the government can’t impose consequences for Trump, then the platforms ought to do so. The social media companies seem to relish the power that comes with that spotlight, but they do not want the responsibility.
Quinta Jurecic, the managing editor of the Lawfare blog, who closely covered Trump’s impeachment trial, argued that the platforms are running up against some of the same problems government institutions dealt with during impeachment, when many of the guardrails of government broke loose. “In a well-functioning political system, we would never get to the point where social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were having to decide how to handle a possible disinformation campaign two weeks before a presidential election, because all those other institutions would have quashed the problem to begin with,” she told me.
Jurecic argues that the tech giants can feel like the only checks left standing — because they’re among the few entities with any power at all. “It’s as if a train has skidded off the rails and jumped every barrier, and Facebook and Twitter are standing there waving their arms and yelling, “Stop!” But they’re not going to be able to make it stop all on their own.”
The best example of this is the four-year debate over whether Twitter should ban Trump for his conspiratorial, untrue and geopolitically dangerous tweets. The argument in favor of deplatforming the president is a strong one, given that he frequently flouts and violates the company’s rules. But the calls to ban Trump don’t stem from a deep respect of Twitter’s rules but instead from concerns about national security. His winking calls to “LIBERATE” are potentially destabilizing. His constant tweets pushing mail-in ballot misinformation threaten to undermine the integrity of the election. In 2017, Trump’s tweets about North Korea were interpreted by North Korean officials as an act of war.
These tweets are destabilizing and threatening. Still, deplatforming the president — even a profoundly unfit one — appears out of the question for these companies. And, of course, the problem with Trump is much bigger than his tweets. As Casey Newton, a tech writer who writes the Platformer newsletter, noted recently, “Trump is a problem platforms can’t solve.”
Newton came to that conclusion citing recent research from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center that suggested “social media played only a secondary and supportive role” in the recent high-profile voting disinformation campaign. Trump’s “position as president and his leadership of the Republican Party allow him to operate directly through political and media elites, rather than relying on online media,” the Harvard researchers argued.
It’s a decent argument that Donald Trump is, himself, a platform. (After all, he elevates and amplifies people and ideas, is a natural radicalization engine and feeds off our attention.) Still, none of this absolves the social media companies. They are responsible for the loopholes they’ve created to allow the president and other elected officials to lie. Not only that, they help to amplify those lies and blur the lines of reality. And their speech moderation policies work only when they’re enforced consistently and transparently — something few, if any, social media platforms have managed to do (on Friday Twitter reversed its policy on the Hunter Biden story).
The amplification cycle that Trump enjoys is part of a bigger information ecosystem that involves participation from the president, the platforms and the news media. The platforms and the media can (sometimes) exist in this equation without each other — you can take one of them out, or you can introduce meaningful friction into the way they amplify information, and the system will still operate. But the president is essential.
Where does this leave us? Nowhere good. It makes sense that Trump and Republicans — who effectively have no party platform and who seem wholly uninterested in governing beyond confirming judges and posting memes to own the libs — would deem any authority forcing them to play by any set of rules as a near-existential threat. Just as it makes sense that, for Trump’s opponents, the platforms occupy an uncomfortable role as one of the last lines of defense for democracy.
The entire debacle is what happens when two broken systems — information distribution and American politics — collide. It will most likely be very hard to fix one without the other, and there are no easy solutions. The reality of what it will take to fix it all will probably bore and frustrate everyone. In both cases, solutions will be achieved only with clear and transparent systems of rules and precedents, backed up by real accountability for offenders over a long enough period of time to build up real trust.
But the biggest hurdle is our stakeholders' lack of a collective desire to fix this situation instead of exploiting the byproducts of our broken systems to score cheap political points. Both the platforms and lawmakers need to want to do the hard work of actual governance. Which is why we have a long way to go.
Charlie Warzel, a New York Times Opinion writer at large based in Montana, covers technology, media, politics and online extremism.