When historians document the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, there will be a single fact that unites all reportage: Twitter was the social platform that said enough is enough first. Before he left the White House. Before he became, on the face of it, just another citizen. It will be the noble tech giant that took a stand.
Except, the truth is this: in the relentless yarn of Trump and Twitter, there are no good guys and it was completely pointless to ban him now. He already has an enormous audience which he created, radicalised and mobilised there and those digital disciples are going to follow him wherever he goes. Banning him now is absurd – the flimsiest of fixes. We all know the damage is done. The thing we don’t know is what he’ll do next.
Now, this may seem needlessly negative given we’re in a lengthy pandemic, our collective fortunes are plummeting and Ocado has announced the possibility of food shortages. But, as I scrolled through clapping emojis and outbursts of gratitude to Twitter after it locked the President’s account, I remembered a story someone very clever told me a couple of years ago that made my blood run cold.
I was writing my first book – Influence – which was an investigation into how digital influence works, and was fascinated by how the alt-right had used social media to rise. So, I spoke to an expert and after we talked through how racist content goes on a journey from 4-chan to Twitter, he shared why de-platforming doesn’t work. In a way, this was news to me – surely if you deny the person their mass audience, you can start to solve the problem? No, he laughed. The kind of laugh you do, not because someone is funny, but because they are so ignorant you can hardly believe it.
He told me about an incel group that had existed on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. They were really dark and extreme – properly scary – and one-by-one each platform kicked them off. Now, he said, you can’t see what they’re doing. Now, they are completely in the dark. “But they are still out there,” he said. “It’s just now we don’t know where.” Thanks to the mainstream social networks attempting to de-platform them, they are using their own networks – free of regulation, suspension and people who might challenge them.
With Trump losing Twitter, and no doubt Facebook will follow when he leaves office, it’s entirely plausible he’ll create his own digital platform to welcome his enormous devoted audience. His relentless message of “us (MAGA) vs them (everyone else)” means his followers already believe Twitter and Facebook are against them. They already believe the world is against them. Only Trump allows them to be authentic, say what they truly think and not be the bad guys. Even if they are the bad guys.
A Trump-owned digital platform would thrive, especially now that his audience is united by the injustice – albeit falsehood – of a stolen election. They are already riled up and mobilised. The only thing missing on social media is their great leader, their queen bee, and there’s no way he’s going to give up that much power just because Jack Dorsey puts his foot down (five-ish years too late).
The fact is, if a person has a digital audience that loves them enough, it’s pretty impossible to de-platform them in the digital age. Because that audience doesn’t care if the platform is Twitter, Facebook or something else entirely – they’re not there for the platform, they’re there for the person. And in this case that’s Trump – unfortunately the biggest digital influencer of our time and more worrying, the scariest.
By Sara McCorquodale, CEO and founder of CORQ.