NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie looks to have delivered one of the most memorable lines of the US 2020 election campaign at Donald Trump’s town hall meeting on October 15. Challenging one of the US president’s more outlandish recent social media interventions – when he retweeted a conspiracy theory alleging that Osama bin Laden is still alive and that Joe Biden and Barack Obama “may have had Seal Team 6 killed” – she shot him down in flames, saying: "You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever."
In a reality-TV presidential campaign it was a moment that took the theatrics up another notch, but one that lifts the curtain on a mix of happenstance and strategy that has ensured Trump has been front and centre of the news agenda since the moment he rode down the escalator in Trump Tower back in 2015 to declare his presidential candidacy.
Ever since then, Trump has played fast and loose with the truth. The Washington Post tracks the president’s misleading claims and had clocked up more than 20,000 from his inauguration on January 20 2016 to July 9 2020. Trump is uniquely unencumbered by self-doubt, morals, or any kind of filter that might deflect the spotlight from himself.
Trump launched his political career in the age of social media, something I wrote about in The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage, noting his desire for short-term “winning” moments so often amplified beyond their policy value through social media.
Leveraging the celebrity status of his long television career on mainstream network NBC’s The Apprentice, he arrived at the perfect moment to align political communication with the hit-hungry platforms of social media moguls Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Jack Dorsey at Twitter. Both platforms operate in a world where algorithms surface information likely to go viral. They platforms were (and remain) woefully underregulated and, taken together, both have become dangerous homes for at best, ridiculous alternative narratives, and at worst, dangerous and damaging lies.
Fake news president
Trump is the fake news president. He has set the news narrative on an almost daily basis by saying something outrageous and then sitting back and watching his opponents, the media – and indeed all of America – dissect whatever brag, lie or slander he’s launched that day. Often he throws half a dozen tweets out knowing one will stick (he averages over 30 tweets a day). Their purpose is to deflect from whatever real challenges he faces in his presidency.
Sometimes all that is apparent is his lack of the knowledge one might expect from a president, as in describing Prince Charles as the “Prince of Whales”. Sometimes it’s how unpleasant he can be when he stoops to very personal attacks – such as his long-running sniping at Senator John McCain, even after McCain died. And sometimes he uses social media to enable extremists – as on July 1 2020 when he retweeted a video of his supporters yelling “white power”, and failed to immediately delete it despite being called out from all sides.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook and Twitter have been slow to censor even Trump’s most egregious lies. These platforms are in business not as arbiters of decency and truth, but to make money, as much as they can and from as many of us as possible.
They aim to be ubiquitous, and having Trump surf their wave has enhanced their reach exponentially – Twitter by the president’s direct and daily use of the platform, and Facebook by being the chief means for seeding the conversations that will ultimately influence Americans to lend either Trump or Biden their vote in November.
Platforms of anger
I’m currently engaged in research as to how, since 2016, both platforms have become platforms of anger, building bubbles and echo chambers that swell and burst as every new political play gains traction. And, as MIT showed in its 2018 study, fake news travels much faster than the truth, gaining currency far quicker and travelling much further than anything as dull as a fact. With a plodding Biden campaign well ahead in the polls, expect the Trump campaign to step up the alternative news agenda exponentially to disrupt the Biden narrative and sow the seeds of doubt in voters’ minds.
We’re used to “October surprises” in US presidential races. Some – like the Comey investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails back in 2016 – can derail a candidate, while others fall flat. That’s what appears to be happening with the Republicans’ attempt to seed a story through the New York Post about Joe Biden’s son Hunter. As a story it hit every GOP voter button, supposed Biden hypocrisy and kleptocracy – and at the hands of the Ukrainians and Chinese too.
The story was dubious, to the extent that both Facebook and Twitter stepped in to block its circulation. Republicans cried foul, but the story’s provenance was questionable, appearing to emanate from Trump lawyer and surrogate Rudy Giuliani and former chief strategist Steve Bannon. But without clear proof that the story is a hoax, Twitter has now back-tracked on its decision.
So does this intervention mark a serious and long-lasting change in policy for Facebook and Twitter? Unlikely. They have taken steps to police both content and content providers on their platforms in recent months, but even Facebook’s much publicised taking down of 19 Russian-linked accounts in September was merely frittering around the edges.
The power of these platforms exceeds the founders’ ability to police them – even if they wanted to. And while both platforms make vast amounts of money through advertising and data licensing, they are unlikely to turn off the kind of content that draws users back addictively and offers such rich bounty for advertisers. Ultimately, self-regulation will be ineffectual - and even formal regulation may prove unenforceable in a nation so wedded to the first amendment’s right of free speech.
Frankly, that works perfectly well for whoever takes the White House on November 3. The courts have offered little by way of regulation in the social media era. Expect little more in future, whoever wins. The “crazy uncle” may depart the stage, but social media as the tool of political communication is just getting started.