Can Donald Trump survive without Twitter?

Written By: Charlie Warzel © 2021 The New York Times Company The New York Times
Washington, DC, United States of America Published: Jan 09, 2021, 03.05 PM(IST)

President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at Miami-Opa locka Executive Airport in Opa-locka, Fla., Nov. 1, 2020. (Doug Mills © 2020 The New York Times Company) Photograph:( The New York Times )

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The Trump presidency, and indeed almost all of his political career, is inextricable from the platform. He tweeted and tweeted, and the rest of us rejoiced or grimaced in equal measure. Either way, his tweets made news. His account, for better or worse (spoiler: worse), acted as the national media’s assignment editor for a half decade.

On Friday, Twitter permanently suspended President Donald Trump’s account. According to the company, one of the tweets that sealed the deal was “President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the inauguration” and its implication that the results of the 2020 election were not legitimate. After years of using the platform to spread lies and conspiracies, after countless tweets amplifying white supremacists and QAnon believers, and after attempting to provoke both North Korea and Iran, the justification feels a bit like getting Al Capone on tax evasion. And yet the damage is irrefutable.

Reflexively, it feels a bit odd to care so much about a 74-year-old man losing access to the app he uses to complain about cable news. But the Trump presidency, and indeed almost all of his political career, is inextricable from the platform. He tweeted and tweeted, and the rest of us rejoiced or grimaced in equal measure. Either way, his tweets made news. His account, for better or worse (spoiler: worse), acted as the national media’s assignment editor for a half decade. And here we are.

Now it’s gone.

The obvious question now is: What does this mean for Trump’s future? Can a disgraced president addicted to outrage and innately governed by the same forces as the attention economy survive without his primary outlet?

I think it all depends on whether Trump is, himself, a platform as formidable as some of the platforms he uses. I’ve spent the last four years thinking about this guy — almost subconsciously — as the ultimate social media influencer. But, occasionally, I wonder if maybe I’ve had it backward. Yes, Trump is at times the influencer. But does he also behave like the platform?

To think of Trump as an influencer is to suggest that his message can be contained. That his ideas live and die with him and his ability to broadcast them. To suggest that Trumpism is something bigger — that it is a platform itself — is to argue that Trump and his followers have constructed a powerful, parallel information ecosystem that is as strong and powerful (one could argue even more powerful) than any system built to oppose it. But anyone plugged into the pro-Trump universe realizes that Trumpism is bigger than the figurehead.

So which is Trump: the influencer or the platform?

Like a good platform, Trump has found a way to bring communities with relevant interests together while not thinking too much about the long-term costs.

Like all platforms, Trump is a natural engine of radicalization — for those who support him and those who oppose him. Consuming more of him leads only to a hardening of one’s ideology. Each rally and every successive tweet is more extreme than the last, propelling most of Trump’s followers deeper down the rabbit hole and intensifying their enthusiasm or disgust for the president. For this reason, like any good platform, Trump is a time suck. Evenings, weekends, holidays, you name it — are all derailed by his demand for your time and attention. Both are the ultimate currency to the Trump platform, allowing him to remain the central figure in American life.

And then there’s our relationship to the Trump platform, which should feel familiar to tech observers. It arrives unexpectedly and is nothing quite like what came before it. The shiny object becomes a media darling. Since it’s a novel experience, the new platform is not taken seriously as a world-changing force. The new platform announces itself with a catchy motto explicitly stating its intentions: “Make the world more open and connected,” as Facebook declared in its early days; “Make America Great Again,” as the president declares today. But still we avoid asking the hard question: What would happen if the nascent platform achieves those goals? We don’t think too hard about any of it. Even those who don’t like it partake in the platform, feeding it our attention. What’s the harm? After all, it’s free.

In time, we learn that’s not the case. The platform, we find, demands a great deal. Slowly and sneakily it takes and takes little pieces of us. Our data, our attention. It’s not until it’s too late that we learn the platform isn’t free — it only appears so. We learn, to our dismay, that in fact we’ve paid a great price.

Traditionally, a platform is a software framework for others to build on top of. In the case of the social media platforms, their fundamental role is to amass a base of users, connect them and provide people with ways to reach those audiences at scale. Influencers and creators provide the content but live at the whims of the platforms and their rules. They rely on the platforms for audience, and even a subtle tweak of an algorithm can mean fading to obscurity.

It is a precarious existence. When you serve at the pleasure of the platforms, you can be de-platformed. We’re about to see if Trump can truly be de-platformed.

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