Why Trump is so angry about social media censorship — and why there’s not much he can do about it
Social media can’t stop regulating itself, depriving Trump of a potent get-out-the-vote machine
President Trump is hosting a Social Media Summit today at the White House to call attention to what he says is the censorship of conservatives on major social media platforms — not long after Reddit quarantined one of his biggest cheerleading sections at /r/The_Donald. (On Reddit, to ‘quarantine’ a subreddit means it won’t show up on the home page anymore, and users need to subscribe to the subreddit to gain access to content, typically slowing the growth of the subreddit and limiting its exposure, and often acting as a prelude to a full-on ban).
The complaint is old: conservatives have been saying the media is biased against them since at least the 1950s, when they began a concerted effort to found their own media outfits to slip past the traditional newspapers and magazines that didn’t print their views. But for Trump in particular, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and even, to an extent, Google, are fomenting a potent challenge to his political movement — and the White House isn’t taking it sitting down. But even as the Trump admin tries to find ways to respond to the increased policing of social media by the giants, there’s not much he can do to protect the voices he wants— and there are big ramifications for American politics and independent writers, including here on Medium.
Much ado about hate speech and fake speech
Up through the Trump election in 2016, social media companies generally took a hands-off approach to user-generated content. The Silicon Valley “information should be free” attitude was a guiding principle.
There were notable exceptions: the Islamic State used its social media savvy to recruit thousands, and briefly its propaganda soaked the social media channels before the big companies finally took action. That was a warning sign, as were cases of live-streamed murder and mayhem, but generally social media companies believed they were able to handle the isolated bad apples in a way that didn’t fundamentally change their business models.
That was a major miscalculation: it wasn’t a handful of bad apples in the Middle East and random murders who would make up a small share of posts. With bots, trolls, and intel agencies thrown into the mix, social media content became increasingly flooded with bad-faith content designed to stir up trouble. After the Christchurch shooting, few could pretend that social media didn’t have a real-world impact.
That left social media with a set of choices: alienate the radicals by censoring them, or stick by principles and await legislation from various national governments that would make them do it anyway. They took the initiative in hopes of forestalling regulation, including by banning people like Alex Jones and shutting down subreddits like the fever dream that is the QAnon conspiracy. Quarantining /r/The_Donald, in which users were caught supporting a thread calling for violence against Oregon police, was just another step.
But Trump gets that these social media echo chambers are a major part of the reason he’s in power — and a powerful get-out-the-vote machine that he needs. The echo chambers endlessly recycle right-wing outrage bait, churning memes and cherry picking (often false) data and anecdotes to reinforce the notion that cultural conservatives are the victims of a hypocritical leftist agenda that controls the media and the Democrats. Many ideas that eventually become policy percolate within these echo chambers: without them, Trump loses a vital connection to his populist supporters. And without those populist supporters, his margins of victory look slim.
His supporters can move to new platforms like Voat and Gab, but these platforms are controlled by overt white supremacists who in the past have hounded their more closeted allies off these sites. Trump supporters who generally just want to own the libz but not exterminate the Jews find little solace in these alternative platforms. That puts them into social media exile, disorganized and cut off.
So Trump wants to find a way to ‘end’ censorship, tempting the very regulation these platforms were hoping to avoid. Yet even should he find traction, he has not only formidable constitutional challenges — private social media companies are as yet not seen as a public good, and so therefore can kick anyone they want off their sites — but he invites in the precedent that if the government can force social media to protect conservatives, what’s to stop a future, more liberal government, from forcing conservative media, like Fox and OANN, to protect liberals on their airwaves? In such a world, the net effect is something like a return to the Fairness Doctrine, produced after World War II in 1949 specifically to ensure that no radicals could dominate a media giant and produce the kind of crises that led to the war. (Reagan ended the policy in 1987, claiming it discriminated against conservatives).
End of the social media wildcats
Regardless of how the trend goes — towards self-regulation or government one — the end of the Alex Jones-era is rapidly approaching. Wildcat, radical ideologies will still have places they can gather on the far ends of the Internet, but they will increasingly be unable to influence the mainstream — and, in a manner, will return to history as they do so.
White supremacists have long lurked on the Internet, but only with the coming of largely unregulated social media could they finally start popping up in your aunt and uncle’s Facebook feeds. They helped fuel the Trump presidency by riling up otherwise inactivated parts of the electorate and organizing them into a political machine. But as social media companies race to police themselves — and government officials like Trump openly say there needs to be federal regulation on top of that — their days are numbered.