On the day of the election, Donald Trump tweeted that Utah was reporting failed voting machines all over the country. It was meant to read the “county,” but that didn’t matter. The tweet was out there. Saying it made it real — at least on Twitter.
Somewhere between the time when Trump activated his Twitter account and when Mike Cernovich came up with his first hashtag, politics broke. It moved out of the realm of realism, past idealism and entered the elusive world of the magical.
In this new world, Pepe the Frog served as mascot, Harambe was a venerated icon, Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President, John Podesta engaged in occult rituals, while fake Rudy Giulianis spread uncensored racially aggressive pronouncements to invisible audiences. The narrators of such pernicious untruths were not just alt-right leaders like Mike Cernovich and Richard Spencer. They were orchestrated, above all, by Trump himself.
Donald Trump figured it out a lot sooner than anyone else. His 140-character volleys became his agitprop. Just like Lenin realized the potential of the radio in broadcasting the Soviet narrative throughout the world, so Trump realized the potential of Twitter. @realDonaldTrump became the new “Radio Moscow.” Twitter became so central to Trump’s campaign and image that at one point, his aides literally had to wrest Trump’s phone from his hands to get him to stop tweeting.
Occasionally, it seemed as if Donald Trump spoke in tweets. Rarely comfortable weaving a coherent paragraph together, he much preferred expressing himself in pithy bursts. Trump prided himself on coining hashtags in the middle of his speeches. #CrookedHillary soon suffixed many of his supporters’ tweets.
This world seeped into readers’ feeds, filling them with disinformation, fake news, memes and provocative hashtags. It also taught some readers to hold views they were not aware were permitted. Overnight, it seemed, wishing for the deportation of entire cultural groups became a legitimate political position.
Still, throughout the election, social media was a bipartisan news source. Liberals and conservatives alike flocked to their feeds precisely because Twitter and Facebook are structured to be politically inclusive. These organizations have rarely ever, like mainstream journalism, been denounced as biased. If they are, they avoid it unequivocally. After Facebook was accused of a liberal bias in selecting articles for their “Trending News” section, they immediately switched to doing so via algorithm. Social media has no editorial standards and offers the freedom for anyone to express whichever idea they choose. Even if it’s an idea expressed at 5 a.m.
This is the democratic promise of social media. It’s unsurprising, then, that almost half of people say Facebook is their primary news source. Fifty-nine percent of Twitter users get their news from the site. Yet company heads are reluctant to acknowledge the responsibility their platforms hold over shaping the current political discourse and media landscape.
Mark Zuckerberg said of Facebook in August, “We’re a tech company, not a media company.” Funny, considering that Facebook’s news director recently announced he wants Facebook to become people’s number one source for breaking news.
Still, this reluctance is easy to understand. “Media company” doesn’t have the innocent, progressive and neutral ring that “tech company” has. Tech companies create online freedom, whether of expression or organization. Media companies redact, standardize and often censor. Tech companies reflect the wills of their diverse users. Media companies reflect the views of their board of directors or editors.
However, if Facebook and Twitter are to continue playing a key role in disseminating news, they must realize the dangers of labeling emergent political movements on social media as “democratic,” “free” or “grassroots.” Assuming that the bigoted trend of the alt-right movement and those like it is no more than a popular surge of latent beliefs only obscures the true leadership behind it.
If tech-cum-media companies want to continue their aspirations in conquering the media space, they must take responsibility for allowing the kinds of political movements and communities that originate on their platforms.
After all, closely tied to the concept of news must be the burden of responsibility. These platforms must be held accountable for the kind of information that is allowed to circulate. It is a disinformation in itself to imply equivalence between the New York Times and InfoWars. For how free can one truly feel when one can’t distinguish between truth and falsehood?
When Mike Cernovich told the New Yorker that he was “the establishment,” it should have been a red flag, dispelling the illusions we’ve come to believe about the freedom of social media. I hope the alarm is still sounding for those in charge of the platforms. Until boundaries are drawn between news and meme, the world of the magical will be merciless and will gladly have us sink in our realist quick sand.
On election night, as Donald Trump took Florida, North Carolina, then Wisconsin and Michigan, Richard Spencer ominously tweeted, “It’s a new world.” The magical had penetrated the real. “We the Normies Now,” he wrote.
Contact Anna–Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.