Picking up the pieces in a post-Trump world

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In the turmoil of the Trump years the greatest tragedy was a loss of the sense of truth, says Mark Lambert.

Snubbing his opponent’s swearing-in and demanding a 21 gun salute at his own departure. He went as contentiously as he began. Donald Trump has always been a controversial figure; a billionaire businessman and television personality who has a reputation for direct speech and ostentatiously flaunting his wealth

The fact that he was at odds with the political establishment was obvious from the moment he entered the race for the Whitehouse and was confirmed as senators and commentators alike lined up to condemn him as his presidency ended. It is interesting to note that Trump clearly understood this from the very beginning and used Twitter as a way of circumnavigating the mainstream media who are the gatekeepers of political discourse; the lens that shapes our view. Until Twitter itself was pulled from under his feet.

The broad sweep of opinion sees Trump as somewhat of a parody, overly concerned with his own importance and image, prone to outlandish statements and self-aggrandisement peppered with peculiar attacks and outbursts on social media. I would certainly prefer a calmer, more rational and intellectual approach from our political leaders. However there’s no denying that Trump did have an ability to engage people in a way that was personable, amusing and accessible. He connected with a huge swath of the American voting public: over 74 million people!

From the beginning, Trump intuitively knew he could have a direct relationship with these voters. He recognised that short, punchy maxims which stick with people are much more effective and memorable than dense factual, legalistic answers to questions.

Instead, Trump used appealing and largely positive (some might say jingoistic) sound bites which seemed to many almost cartoonish, but ultimately represented the culture we have been developing for decades now: it is anti-intellectual in essence. 

Today, in a world dominated by a cult of relativism, truth is complex and fractured and Trump found a way to simplify multi-faceted realities into pithy tropes that hit home with the electorate and are remembered irrespective of their often contested veracity. Trump seemed to have no  time for facts or experts and having a President voice often controversial ideas emboldened a broad swath of America that felt abandoned and forgotten. It is important that any analysis of the Trump phenomenon does not fail to recognise this reality.

Faced with Trump’s unusually brash and confrontational style, the mainstream media chose to engage him in the same kind of rhetoric. Just as Trump’s approach was dismissive, even perhaps disrespectful, the majority of media outlets chose to trivialise and banalise political debate by largely ridiculing him instead of calmly analysing the phenomenon. 

The direction taken by all players made it very difficult to focus attention on the important political issues. It cultivated an attitude which dismissed alternative views instead of respecting and engaging with them. Ultimately it had the effect of creating a downward spiral in the standard of political discourse which ultimately helped no one. 

Trump said something provocative, the media ridiculed him and he claimed in turn that their ridicule was  ‘fake news’.

Ultimately the cycle resulted in Trump supporters trusting the media less and less and resorting to more obscure media sources which acted as echo chambers rather than information outlets.

Social media provided the perfect platform to facilitate and exacerbate this phenomenon. 

And then Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump from its platform. His account, which had 88.7 million followers, was simply removed one Friday evening. But what was the last thing he tweeted? 

“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” So Trump tweeted Friday at 9:46 a.m. 

He then tweeted at 10:44 a.m: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

The social media company said Trump’s tweet about skipping the inauguration was ‘further confirmation that the election was not legitimate’. And his message to supporters was ‘encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts’.

“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter — we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” the company announced. 

“Our public interest framework exists to enable the public to hear from elected officials and world leaders directly. It is built on a principle that the people have a right to hold power to account in the open,” it said. “However, we made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules entirely and cannot use Twitter to incite violence.”

Following his permanent suspension, a mass cyber exodus took place, largely in the direction of an app called Parler, which has a similar function to Twitter. This exodus was such that Parler was the number one app on the Apple and Google Play Stores. Then something unprecedented happened. 

Amazon Web Services, who hosted the Parler app, removed its content from their servers. Parler is now suing Amazon, claiming their decision to terminate Parler’s account is motivated by political animus. 

In response, Amazon claims that Parler contains content which incites violence. While all this was happening, ‘Hang Mike Pence’ was the top trend on Twitter and the Chinese Embassy in the US was spinning it’s eugenics programme without sanction:

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(At the time of writing, this tweet is still up on the site).

Was Trump’s tweet inciting violence? I certainly don’t think it was wise, but as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed out, rights like the freedom of speech ‘can be interfered with, but by law and within the framework defined by the legislature – not according to a corporate decision’.

One also must wonder, if Big Tech can shut down Parler and de-platform similar social media platforms like Gab (which bills itself as an alternative to Twitter) so swiftly and with such minimal effort, why can’t they stop the child porn on their platforms

Of the 18.4 million reports of child sexual abuse worldwide in 2018, a staggering 12 million can be traced back to Facebook Messenger. Facebook is the platform of choice for enabling the distribution of child porn online and was used to organise (sometimes violent) protests throughout the summer as well as the Capitol protest, where five people lost their lives, yet no action has been taken against this platform.

There’s also a commercial dimension. At the point where Parler breaks through and becomes mainstream, its rivals get together and shut it down.

That certainly isn’t the way events are being portrayed in the mainstream media, but could it be a sub-narrative in a marketplace where your attention is the main traded commodity? 

Andrew Torba, CEO of Gab.com commented:

“Apple banning Parler is not the neutral implementation of some objective standard, but rather a cynical, politically motivated gesture and evidence of Silicon Valley elites’ disdain for ordinary Americans.”

Mainstream media is reporting the shutdown in a way which portrays Parler as ‘Nazi Twitter’, ‘alt-right’, and the like. But are such pejorative terms objective or do they colour the narrative? 

Free speech is the foundation of a  democratic society but who sets the boundaries of what free speech means? Does it mean you have the right to insult and vilify someone else? Does it mean you can incite hatred? And violence? 

These boundaries are amorphous and set by a sense of what constitutes society, but as society agrees less and less on what objective truth actually is, they are becoming increasingly difficult to police. The very concept of moral consensus is becoming ever more vague.

For some Americans, Biden is simply the alternative to Trump. If Trump makes them cringe, they’ll vote for the other guy. Others see Biden as progress, stability, normal service resumed. But for a lot of Americans, Trump was a hero shaking up the establishment and fighting for the common man, an idea that Trump always fed:

“In reality they’re not after me. They’re after you. I’m just in the way.” 

Whether, in reality, Trump is a hero of the people or a manipulator of populist urban legends to generate support, is a matter of opinion. And it doesn’t have to be either-or, it could easily be a bit of both.

The question is, in a world where the media seems to be losing all standards of objectivity, how do we tell the truth?

Recent events have shown us that big tech companies have absolute control over what messages we are exposed to, that some messages are more dangerous than others, and that the new gatekeepers are very selective about some things while having a very hands off approach to others.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves?

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