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Recently, there has been much debate over whether or not Twitter should clamp down on President Donald Trump’s presence on the social media platform. Already, Twitter has started to fact-check the president’s tweets, and even briefly froze Don Jr.’s Twitter account for posting a viral video about COVID-19. In fact, an incendiary New York Times op-ed piece this summer even argued that Twitter should ban Trump entirely, imagining a scenario in which Twitter finally de-platforms Trump.
Yet, that’s harder to do than it sounds. The media, Twitter, and Trump are caught up in a strange relationship, in which every tweet from the president is amplified by the media. The nastier the tweet, the more the media eats it up and repeats it. What Twitter wants is “engagement” – and that’s exactly what it gets when the entire Washington political establishment has embraced Twitter as a way to attack opponents, spread lies and disinformation, and engage in shameless self-promotion. So what would happen to Twitter without Trump? Here are 3 possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: Nothing changes
While it’s almost impossible to imagine Twitter without unhinged tweet storms from the president at all hours of the morning, it’s still quite likely that Twitter wouldn’t change much from its current form even if Trump leaves. Engagement is engagement is engagement, and the responsibility to stir up the political pot will simply pass to the next person to hold high political office. Trump may have invented the whole game of mocking and insulting political rivals via Twitter, but Biden has shown that he’s also willing to toss around his share of “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” comments and AOC is just as acrimonious as the current president. As the New York Times op-ed piece suggested, “The damage… is nearly impossible to reverse.” We live in a highly polarized, extremely uncivil media world.
Scenario 2: People depart Twitter in waves in search of new social media platforms
There are a number of issues on the horizon – including possible antitrust and censorship issues – that could lead to a weakening of Twitter’s power in the social media ecosystem. Already, pro-Trump conservatives are starting to depart in waves, in search of social media platforms that won’t de-platform them, won’t ban them, and won’t censor their free speech. Every few months, in fact, there seems to be a new platform that is poised to become the next “it” social media platform. Whenever YouTube cracks down on free speech, there’s talk of rival platforms like Gab, BitChute and DLive. And now that Twitter has started to crack down on political conservatives, there’s talk of moving all those conversations over to a platform like Parler.
Scenario 3: Twitter becomes a friendly platform for civil discourse once again.
Ok, just kidding about this one. This isn’t a realistic scenario. The narrative from the mainstream media is that Trump is the lone bad apple spreading “lies and disinformation,” and that all of Twitter would once again thrive once Orange Man leaves. However, if anything, Trump is simply the manifestation of a much greater transformation that is taking place across the nation, thanks to social media. It’s simply far too easy to attack anyone, offer up hot takes, shamelessly self-promote and insult rivals via social media.
It’s sad but true – Twitter needs Trump almost as much as Trump needs Twitter. For Trump, Twitter has become the perfect way to bypass the biased media and communicate directly with the people. For Twitter, Trump offers up a non-stop supply of fresh content to spark engagement. Any tweet from President Trump immediately becomes new material to debate and discuss. The big question here, of course, is whether Trump’s Justice Department still has enough time to rein in social media companies and keep them from de-platforming the president before the November election.