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End of the Twitter presidency leaves tech in the ascendancy

Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas, in the final days of his presidency - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Social media won’t the same again without Donald Trump, says LIZ GERARD. But the issues he raised online have not gone away.

We’ll miss him now he’s gone. Not from the White House, but from Twitter. Mad, bad and dangerous, maybe. But @realdonaldtrump brought us smiles as well as sighs. Who could forget “Covfefe” or “Person, woman, man, camera, TV”?

Were Twitter and Facebook right to silence the leader of the free world, albeit in his final days in office? Denying his wisdom to some 89 million followers (my, how it must rankle that he was still 40m behind Obama – and with three pop stars and a footballer between them*) while leaving true despots uncensored?

Why not? It’s their club, their rules. There are other outlets. There will be plenty of interview opportunities. There will be a book. We haven’t heard the last of Donald J. Trump.

Nor will Twitter go into a death spiral because a noisy minority don’t like it any more. It will evolve. Twitter has been ruffling feathers almost since it hatched in 2006. To most it was harmless fun, a cool place to hang out, made cooler by the chance to riff with the coolest couple on the planet – soon to be known as @potus and @flotus.

But things got serious in the Arab Spring of 2011 – the “Twitter revolution” – with its powerful images of young men filming protests on their phones and posting on social media. Perhaps feeling threatened, distinguished writers started questioning how important the internet really was to the upheaval. Any fears of displacement were probably unfounded: the young men were pioneering ‘citizen journalism’ not because they wanted to outdo the mainstream, but because the mainstream couldn’t get there in the moment.

The two – old and new media – each had a part to play in telling that story and that has been the case over the past decade. Social media, nimbler, swifter, understands this. The old guard, stuck in their ways and with a sense of entitlement, refused and still refuse to accept it. It isn’t fair. The internet is irresponsible, unregulated, lawless.

Facebook and Twitter were baffling. It was all hashtags and @symbols, wasn’t it? They weren’t proper businesses, were they? What was the product? They didn’t have advertisers; how could they possibly make money? This was all just another fad, cooked up by a bunch of kids, that would run its course and fizzle out, like the dot-com boom of the 1990s.

And yet, and yet. It was also a magical tool, a fantastic new source of personal information. Back in the day before most people discovered their privacy settings, journalists could find out so much about someone from their Facebook profile, contact their friends, get hold of pictures.

Twitter was an even greater boon. Completely open, it was much easier and quicker to quote a tweet than to find a phone number and conduct an interview. What’s more, it could be a new way to connect with readers. You could get star writers and presenters to open Twitter accounts and puff your wares.

Politicians woke up, too – none more so than the celebrity-businessman-turned-presidential-candidate-turned-president Trump. Here was a direct line to voters without the faff of going through traditional media that might not major on the central point they wanted to make. At the outset, it was simple: just post on Twitter or Facebook in addition to the usual press conferences and interviews. Then along came the teccies who knew how to zero in on the tiny target audience whose votes could swing an election…

Safely in power, they could shun or denounce the more questioning established media as “fake news” or ”biased” and stick to their own online channels, occasionally venturing on to a comfy sofa or offering themselves up for a chat with a “friendly” journalist to bolster their claims of openness and availability.

Somewhere along the way, the lines between old and new media got blurred. The “old” demanded accountability: why hasn’t Google shut down anorexia sites? Why are people selling arms on Facebook? Fair questions. No one has yet got to grips with that side of social media. Advances in regulation have been slow and messy, with politicians instead content simply to exploit tech for their own benefit.

When Katie Hopkins called refugees “cockroaches” in the Sun, the press regulator rejected complaints on the ground that it was “opinion”. But the paper soon rid itself of her, as did the Mail after a brief online dalliance. That left her reliant on Twitter to spread her bile – and to discover that libel laws worked there, too. When she was banished for “hateful conduct” last June, she hopped over to Parler, where she was soon joined by various right-wingers, including Michael Gove, Ted Cruz and president Bolsonaro of Brazil.

Trump’s army was ahead of them. Twitter had got above its station by daring to flag up the president’s posts as “potentially misleading” or “glorifying violence”. The loudmouths and conspiracy theorists had a new home.

Bolstered by fanatics and fantasists in his delusion that he had been robbed of the election, Trump created the perfect storm that led to the invasion of the Capitol on January 6. Twitter turned off the tap for good, while Apple, Google and Amazon effectively shut down Parler (although it has since resurfaced, apparently thanks to some Russian input).

Respectable voices – including Angela Merkel and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny – are among those expressing disquiet at what some call Twitter’s denial of free speech. But while we can all say what we like, within the law, there is no obligation on others – including Twitter and Facebook – to act as our megaphones. Any more than the Sun or Mail had any duty to continue publishing the thoughts of Hopkins.

Social media may have given Trump and Hopkins their greatest platforms, but without old media – including, coincidentally, the very same reality TV show – they would have been nothing. They were nurtured on mainstream TV and in the mainstream press. Rupert Murdoch helped put Trump in the White House (and, to a lesser extent, Johnson in Downing Street), largely thanks to Fox TV wantonly allowing him to lie with impunity. Only at the very last, when it was clear he was a loser, did Fox turn away; did CNN interrupt his flow of lies. Only after the insurrection, did Twitter and Facebook shut him down. Both old and new media need to get their houses in order.

So what is the lesson from the end of this Twitter presidency? Certainly, that those who are amplified by social media can be silenced by it, and that those who derived power from it can have that power curbed. It is the tech giants, not just the Democrats, who are now in the ascendency.

Twitter will evolve, but will it mature? The loss of Trump and his fellow cranks might appear to address the problem of misinformation spreading on the site. But that simply sends the misinformation elsewhere – possibly to Parler, more likely to other more remote, more harmful online forums.  And remember, traditional media are not exactly squeaky clean when it comes to the unvarnished truth.

Tech will always find new ways to spread influence and opinion. People will continue to chase after it, to find ways to control and regulate it. But power will always have got there first.

*Justin Bieber, 114m; Katy Perry, 109m; Rihanna; Cristiano Ronaldo, 91m

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